"We have a problem in the Navy and we are going to fix it," Spencer told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on recent naval incidents at sea, including collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and the John S. McCain.
Spencer and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson faced a grilling from senators, including the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, who is the grandson and son of the John S. McCain's namesake.
"It's simply unacceptable for US Navy ships to run aground or collide with other ships, and to have four such incidents in the span of seven months is truly alarming," McCain said in his opening statement.
"How in the world does a billion-dollar destroyer not know that there is a freighter closing in on it? I don't understand how this could possibly happen and I've talked to Maine lobstermen -- they're scratching their heads, they can tell when there's a flock of seagulls are off there bow," Maine Independent Sen. Angus King asked the witnesses, questioning why the ships' radars or on-board lookouts/watch crews were unable to detect the civilian ships.
"It's really unacceptable in this day and age with the technology that we have to have something like this happen regardless of the wider issues, this is just unacceptable from a modern seamanship point of view," King added.
"Sir, I agree with you 100%," Richardson said in responding to King's line of questioning, adding: "Proper operation of your equipment, fundamentals of watch standing, those are the things that we have to look at."
While both Spencer and Richardson said that budget cuts brought about by sequestration and continuing resolutions had a negative impact on readiness and training, Richardson pointed to leadership issues as being a major factor behind the recent incidents.
Richardson called "inadequate budgets" and constraints on resources a "negative force" but added that "at the core, this issue is about leadership, especially command."
"I am accountable for the safe and effective operations of our Navy and we will fix this. I own this problem. I am confident the Navy will identify the root causes and correct them and that we'll be better in the end," Richardson said.
The Navy has launched multiple investigations, a safety pause, and reviews in the wake of the recent accidents.
Spencer said the reviews will include a CNO-led "comprehensive review" that will "take a look at the tactical and operational situation" as well as a departmental "strategic readiness review" that he said will involve "an independent team comprised of military and industry experts that will look and examine root causes, accountability, long-term systemic issues, and then provide remedial insight."
"We are taking immediate corrective actions to ensure we meet the training and material readiness standard to prevent another mishap," Richardson said.
The Navy has also taken several personnel actions, including sacking the commander of the Fitzgerald and several other senior officers as well as the commander of 7th fleet, the first time a fleet commander has ever been relieved of duty.
But McCain but said some changes, such as prohibiting crew members from working 100 hours a week, should not await studies and strategic reviews.
"I appreciate all our plans and all our remedies but there are some of them that are just common sense that don't require a study so I think the men and women who are serving in the Navy would like to see some immediate action taken," McCain said.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that the Commander of the USS John S. McCain has not been relieved of duty.