Tuesday, May 31, 2005

San Francisco CO Permanently Relieved of Command

Originally posted 2250 11 Feb:

According to this press release from Commander Seventh Fleet, CDR Kevin Mooney, CO San Francisco during her recent grounding, has been officially relieved of command and issued a Letter of Reprimand following non-judicial punishment ("Admiral's Mast") on Saturday, Feb. 12 at Seventh Fleet HQ in Yokosuka, Japan. The report goes on to say:

"Following the submarine striking an underwater seamount Jan. 8, (commander of U.S. Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Jonathan W.) Greenert reassigned Mooney to the staff of Commander, Submarine Squadron 15, based in Guam. During the conduct of the investigation into this incident, it became clear to Greenert that several critical navigational and voyage planning procedures were not being implemented aboard San Francisco. By not ensuring these standard procedures were followed, Mooney hazarded his vessel. "

The statement "hazarded his vessel" seems to imply that CDR Mooney was charged with violation of Article 110(b) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Improper (Negligent) Hazarding of Vessel. By disposing of the matter at Non-judicial Punishment, the Navy has decided not to court-martial Captain Mooney. Another report of this action, with updated information on the San Francisco herself, can be found on the Navy Times website. This article explains:

"The Navy also announced Saturday that while no decision has been made about whether to repair or decommission the 23-year-old Los Angeles-class submarine, the damage is so extensive that officials have decided to temporarily repair it and sail the sub off the island to a nuclear-capable shipyard in the United States, where a more detailed assessment can be made.
"The temporary repairs will take about three months and will allow the sub, now resting in a Guam drydock, to transit the ocean, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force in Hawaii. The trip will likely take place this summer, he said.The crew, meanwhile, will remain in limbo on Guam until officials decide the submarine’s fate, Davis said."

While this action was not unexpected, and while I haven't seen the official investigation report (and I'm not likely to), I will be very disappointed if it turns out that CDR Mooney was relieved for taking actions that are common throughout the fast attack fleet. (The crowd over at Ron Martini's BBS is also discussing their feelings about this news.) "Drawing the short straw", or coming up on the wrong side of the odds when operating under the "big ocean, little ship" theory that's common among submarine COs seems to me to be the wrong reason to end an officer's career. It remains to be seen how this action will change the operating habits of the submarine force as a whole. In the early days of WWII, many of the peacetime submarine commanders were too timid to take the fight to the enemy. The result, according to this excellent article from Undersea Warfare, was as follows:

"Our relatively poor submarine performance early in the war was due to a number of factors. First – as in the opening phase of any conflict – gaining combat experience, shedding peacetime attitudes, and winnowing out “less-aggressive” and tactically-inept commanding officers took months of actual fighting."

I only hope that in taking this action against CDR Mooney, the Submarine Force leadership isn't encouraging excessive caution in peacetime that could not easily be cast aside in the event of war. I was always taught that the submarine force should "train like it fights". While I welcome any changes to operating procedures that would reduce the chance of another tragedy like that on the San Francisco, we must recognize that it is impossible to remove all elements of danger from submarining, and I hope we don't lose combat effectiveness by trying to do so.

Staying at PD...

Update 1027 12 Feb: Thoughts on this from some of the other sub-bloggers can be found here and here.

This CBS News report, written before the Admiral's Mast, contains one obvious fallacy, which makes me less likely to believe one potential piece of new information contained in the article.

First, the fallacy: "Normally, a sub relies on its sonar to detect underwater obstacles, sending out pulses of sound and listening for an echo. But the sonar is useless at high speeds because all other sounds are drowned out by the noise the sub makes..."

The truth is that only in very rare situations, such as transiting the Bering Straits to get to the Arctic Ocean, will a submarine use active sonar as a topographical tool. The rest of the time submarines rely on charted water depths and the fathometer (which I guess is a form of active sonar, but not useless at high speeds).

The potentially new piece of information, which contradicts what I've heard elsewhere, is this:

"... before the San Francisco began its high speed run, the crew took depth soundings, which revealed the water was shallower than shown on the chart — another warning sign the captain apparently failed to heed."

I had heard from various "frequently drunken sources" that the sounding taken just minutes before the collision had agreed with the charted water depth; perhaps the investigating team decided to apply a stricter standard to what constitutes a sounding that "checks with charted" than is normally used. Since I would be surprised if anything other than an unclassified executive summary of the accident investigation will ever be released, it's possible that those of us who are limited to printing unclassified information may never be able to determine what really caused the grounding. What I can determine, though, is that Captain Mooney and the crew of the San Francisco represented the Submarine Force with honor, and that their bravery and skill in dealing with the collision and its aftermath should never be doubted.

Robert Hamilton of the New London Day has an article on the CDR Mooney firing (will require free registration after one day) that has this statement that I believe everyone needs to keep in mind:

"The news stunned several Navy sources who have been following the accident investigation, particularly because Mooney's actions after the accident were characterized as heroic by everyone familiar with the situation. Despite extensive damage to the ship, he and his crew got it to the surface and kept it floating long enough to limp back to its homeport of Apra Harbor, Guam."

Whether CDR Mooney and his crew really did make mistakes in navigation planning and risk assessment, or if this is just a case of punishing the Captain just because tradition requires that he be punished, is still to be determined IMHO.


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