Sen. Angus King wanted some straight answers. At a Feb. 12 hearing of a panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he expressed alarm over recent revelations concerning two deadly collisions of Navy ships in the Pacific in 2017. King, a Maine independent, declared the accidents avoidable and questioned the Navy’s commitment to fixing the problems that had helped cause them. Frustrated, King challenged a top Navy leader to come clean.
“I want real numbers. I don’t want general ‘We’re working on staffing’ or ‘We’re working on more training,’ because these were avoidable tragedies,” King told Adm. Philip Davidson, the top military commander in the Pacific. “I would like to see specific responses from the Navy. Not promises and not good feelings.”
Nine days later, Davidson sought to reassure King, who while an independent caucuses with Democrats, that his worry and frustration were unwarranted. In a letter dated Feb. 21, Davidson told King the Navy counted as “complete” 91 of the more than 100 reforms it had promised to make in the months after 17 sailors died in back-to-back crashes with civilian ships in the summer of 2017.
It is a claim directly contradicted by Adm. Bill Moran, the No. 2 man in charge of the Navy. Moran told ProPublica this week that, in fact, none of the promised reforms had been completed. Moran said work had started on 91 of what he said were 103 pledges to, among other things, provide more sailors to under-manned ships in Japan and stop ships from sailing without complete certifications regarding their navigation and war-fighting abilities — both issues in the two 2017 deadly collisions.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Moran said of the reforms.
ProPublica contacted both the Navy and King’s office to inquire about the discrepancy. A spokesman for the Navy said it had “implemented” 91 of its many reforms, pledges that included more sailors for its ships, fixes for its equipment and ending the practice of forcing ships out to sea before they were ready. The spokesman said “implemented” meant “corrective actions, plans or policies are in place.” But they are not yet completed, the spokesman said, correcting Davidson’s claim.
“Many of these recommendations will take time to fully assess their completeness. So even though they may be fully implemented, they won’t be considered complete … until measurable outcomes are achieved,” the spokesman said. “We are not concerned with actions taken but rather on outcomes achieved, and while significant improvements have been made, we are urgently focused on how we can do things better.”
The spokesman said the Navy planned to update its response to King and the Armed Services Committee.
The Navy released a breakdown of the status of every reform Wednesday evening. ProPublica has asked sailors to weigh in on the changes they have seen.
Davidson’s letter to King was first reported on the U.S. Naval Institute’s news website, which posted a copy.
King’s office, asked about the conflicting accounts of Davidson and Moran, declined to comment.
Public concern about the state of the Navy’s ships and sailors traces to the two crashes in the Pacific. In June 2017, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a giant cargo ship and seven sailors drowned. Just months later, the USS John S. McCain crashed with an oil tanker, and 10 more sailors perished.
The collisions amounted to the Navy’s worst accidents at sea in four decades, and the successive incidents left many, including those on the Armed Services Committee, wondering how two $1.8 billion destroyers had been involved in such disasters.
The Navy’s own investigations of the collisions produced some of the answers: poorly trained and over-tired sailors; commanders forced to push their ships and crews through punishing months at sea; ships whose physical shape had deteriorated over years of budget cuts and shortened periods of time set aside for maintenance. The Navy soon generated a list of promised changes and said it had learned the lessons of the twin disasters.
This month, ProPublica reconstructed the fatal crash involving the Fitzgerald, but it also reported another set of findings: The most senior leaders of the Navy, as well as at least one top-ranking Pentagon official, had been warned about the potential for disaster for years, repeatedly and in detail.
ProPublica’s findings were at the heart of King’s questioning of Davidson at the Feb. 12 hearing. The Navy’s list of reforms had not been made public, and King and others were frustrated by the reports on progress from the Navy.
“It’s one of the most sobering analyses of a disaster that I’ve ever seen,” King said of ProPublica’s reporting. “And it takes responsibility all the way through the very top of the Navy to this Congress.”
“There were multiple warnings, it wasn’t acted upon and I want to be reassured that it is being acted upon,” King said.
King, whose state is home to Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, is an active member of the committee, with a particular interest in the Navy. In 2017, the Navy presented King with its highest civilian honor for his service to the military branch.
At the hearing, Davidson defended the Navy by noting that the vast majority of ships were not crashing, a remark that drew widespread derision.
ProPublica also reported that after the crashes, in a talk to ship commanders and other officers, Davidson was asked whether they would be able to push back against orders to sail if they believed their ships were not ready.
Davidson, according to an admiral inside the theater, responded with anger.
“If you can’t take your ships to sea and accomplish the mission with the resources you have,” he said, “then we’ll find someone who will.”
The remark spread across the Navy, stoking fears among commanders about honestly communicating unsafe conditions for fear of losing their jobs.
Davidson’s spokesman told ProPublica that he only meant to say that if ships were not fit to sail, they would be replaced by other ships that were.
In response to questions about his inaccurate letter to Congress, Davidson’s spokesman referred questions to Moran’s office.