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John Kirby: After the third Navy collision in a year -- this time with USS John S. McCain -- Navy conducting a broad review of procedures

It is an opportunity to evaluate how poor budget management is contributing to these tragedies, writes Kirby

Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN —  

Sometimes you have to take a knee. Even in the crunch of a crisis. Even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Sometimes, you have to pause, catch your breath and try to figure out what’s going well and what needs to improve.

John Kirby, Sr.
John Kirby, Sr.

That’s the situation the Navy finds itself in today, even as it tries to find 10 missing sailors off the destroyer USS John S. McCain.

Even as it wraps its arms around worried families and anxious crewmembers.

Even as it searches for answers to questions it hasn’t been able to satisfy since another ship, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a merchant ship just over two months ago. How could this have possibly happened? At all? Again?

There won’t be any easy answers to those questions, that’s for sure. But the investigation is off and running, and, not unlike what investigators have already found in the case of Fitzgerald, it’s likely they will discover lots of things that went wrong.

But given that this is the third Navy collision and the fourth forward-deployed ship in the Pacific region to be involved in a mishap in less than a year’s time (the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in January and USS Lake Champlain, another cruiser, struck a Korean fishing boat back in May), it is wholly fitting that the Navy is conducting a broader review of training and procedures across the fleet.

It’s also fitting that they plan to conduct what Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is calling an “operational pause” to, as he says, “ensure we are taking all appropriate immediate measures to enhance the Navy’s safe and effective operation around the world.”

Around the world – not just in the Western Pacific, where all these incidents happened, but around the world, where the Navy operates each and every day.

They will do this smartly. Not every fleet commander will conduct this pause the same way. Not every commander will take the same amount of time to get it done. Some will stop what they are doing for a day or more. Others won’t have that luxury. Each fleet will flex, making certain the Navy’s myriad commitments in every body of water are still met.

Our sailors may be taking a knee, but they will still be able to answer all bells.

What Navy leaders learn from this pause will probably be instructive. If they really listen to the sailors who man the watches and the weapons, who run the engineering plants and keep our ships in fighting trim, they may glean better – and safer – ways of doing things.

Let’s hope so. Because naval operations are dangerous enough without introducing or permitting practices and policies that compound those dangers.

Maybe our sailors need more sleep. Maybe they need more training. Maybe they need ships and systems and sensors in better working condition. Maybe, in some cases, they just need better leaders.

The pause will shed light on these and many other factors. As Admiral Richardson said today, “the emphasis … is really to take a look at the fundamentals, at the unit and team level to make sure that we are not overlooking anything … the basic seamanship, airmanship, those sorts of things: teamwork, how we do business on the bridge, the fundamentals.”

Fundamentals, yes. But lawmakers who decry the Navy’s shiphandling of late ought also to consider what deleterious effect their own poor budget management has wrought.

I’m not arguing that sequestration and year after year of tardy appropriations or continuing resolutions are solely to blame for what happened to these ships and their crews. But neither can it be argued that the ridiculous fiscal uncertainty with which Navy leaders have had to contend has not had an impact on training, steaming and flying time.

That time is vital. Experience begets competence. Competence begets readiness. Readiness begets the ability to fight and win when deterrence fails. So, yes, I think it’s fair to examine the degree to which budget woes may have helped create the conditions that led to these tragedies.

Frankly, it would be a bigger tragedy if we didn’t – because things aren’t getting any easier in the Asia-Pacific theater. No one knows that better than the Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Scott Swift, who once commanded the Seventh Fleet. He knows the Navy needs to be able to plan, train, budget, equip and deploy accordingly.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, put it best. “We ask a lot of our men and women in the Navy,” he said. “The time they spend at sea is increasing, while their ships age and their funding gets cut. These are just the conditions that can lead to an increase in the kinds of accidents we are witnessing.”

Some – including Chairman Thornberry – worry that with everything going on in the Pacific, this is the worst possible time for these mishaps to occur or for the Navy to take a pause. Mr. Thornberry said it’s “no way to protect America.”

He’s got a point. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do that. But the world isn’t perfect, and neither are the officers and crew of any particular warship. The dangers they face aren’t going to get any easier to face if they don’t figure out what’s happening in the fleet – and fix it.

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I remember a story one of my professors at the Navy War College told about a young Marine platoon commander in the Korean War. The lieutenant and his men were surrounded by the enemy, getting attacked on all sides. Every few minutes the young officer would dash behind a boulder and take a knee, then dash back out and issue new orders.

When the firefight at last ended, he had saved his men. One of his troops asked him what he had been doing behind that rock.

“I was asking myself three questions,” he said. “What am I doing? What am I not doing? And how can I make up the difference?”

It’s never OK for a Navy ship to collide with anything. There’s never a perfect time to pause, but we should not stop asking ourselves these same questions. It is in the asking – and the answering – that we get better. And better is what we must be after.

Time to take a knee.