Tuesday, May 31, 2005

NYT Writer In Guam

Originally posted by Bubblehead at 1735 07 May:

New York Times writer Christopher Drew, famous as the co-author of Blind Man's Bluff, is in Guam doing interviews related to the USS San Francisco grounding. While I'll be interested to see if the Navy makes any San Francisco crewmen available to talk to him, it looks like his first article is actually fairly balanced. (Expect to have registration required soon.) Some excerpts:

"In a report to be released here on Sunday, the Navy pins most of the blame on the top officers of the submarine. But investigators also have found that deficiencies in navigation charts and in giving the submarine its routing helped set the stage for the accident, Navy officials said.The submarine, the San Francisco, was traveling at top speed and at a depth of more than 500 feet when it smashed into the mountain on Jan. 8...
"Yet it turns out that neither the submarine's crew nor the officers onshore who set its basic routing studied those charts. Investigators found that they relied instead on the one chart that did not show the danger zone, which gave them all the impression that the submarine's track was clear...
"The submarine's captain and six other crew members were relieved of duty after the accident. Under Navy rules, they had the primary responsibility for keeping the vessel safe.Navy officials said the crew should have cross-checked all the charts for the area and taken more frequent depth soundings. The accident occurred amid the Caroline Islands, just north of the Equator. And given how much is known about other undersea mountains in that area, the submarine should have been going much slower than 33 knots, officials say...
"The investigation also found that the route that the San Francisco was given through the Caroline Islands had never been used before - and that the officer who created it sent it to the submarine only two days before it left Guam, rather than three to five days in advance, as required under Navy rules. According to another recent Navy report, submarines had made 10 successful transits through the Caroline Islands over the five years before the accident. But the office that plans the routes in that area - a part of the Navy's Seventh Fleet, based in Japan - did not have a system to keep track of past routings. Navy officials said that office was supposed to produce routes that were navigationally feasible, and that the San Francisco's officers mistakenly assumed that their track had been tested before. But the officials said it was still up to the submarine's crew to spot the discrepancies in the charts and be more cautious."...

A couple points stood out for me: For one, I don't think that all seven personnel punished were relieved of their duties; the junior enlisted weren't, to the best of my knowledge, they were only busted. Also, it surprises me that "officials" would mention a speed of anything other than "in excess of 25 knots" for the "top speed" of the San Francisco.

In saying that the sub should have been going much slower than the speed listed, the Navy is tacitly acknowledging to those who understand submarine routing that the only way the San Fran could have avoided this was to request a modification to their track or speed of advance; with as narrow as the track was, and with the reported "discolored water" being three miles from the actual location of the seamount, they would have had to be shallow and slow for a pretty good chunk of the transit, which would have made it difficult to keep up with their assigned PIM speed. (PIM = "position of intended movement", "position and intended movement", or "points of intended movement"; the PIM speed is the average speed you're supposed to make good on your transit of a given area.) Once again, those with 20/20 hindsight have no problem questioning the actions of those who didn't have this benefit.

On the plus side, I was happy to see that the Navy is starting to acknowledge that there may have been more systemic problems; it appears, though, that they're still stopping short of acknowledging that many other crews would have done the same thing if put in the same situation. I'm also wondering if anyone will ask the Sub Force brass if, since they consider the actions of the San Fran navigation team to be so egregious, what precautions did they take to ensure subs of the Force were not making these mistakes in advance of the grounding? Did they present scenarios for Tactical Readiness Exams that tested a boat's ability to pick the right chart for a badly charted area? Did they have open ocean navigation scenarios where there was a bad sounding, and see if the boat requested a modification to their movement orders? Gee, this second-guessing game is fun!

In other San Francisco news, KUAM reports that repairs have been made to San Francisco's bow, but they don't have any new pictures. (Update 2004 07 May: A new picture is posted two entries up.) Also, I've heard that 60 Minutes is part of the same press junket that brought Christopher Drew to the island and is doing interviews for an upcoming story.

Staying at PD...

Update 2346 07 May: Here's the AP wire story on the release of the official Navy report on the San Francisco grounding.


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