Do We Still Need A Great White Fleet?


Why this story is significant: Over the course of a few weeks, 17 US sailors died when the USS Fitzgerald and John McCain collided with civilian cargo ships in the Pacific Ocean. Voices within the military and Republican Party placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of service members and warned Americans to stop cutting the Pentagon’s budget. A new report printed in ProPublica calls this narrative into question, while a more critical examination of what really caused the accidents forces us to reconsider why we have so many ships and personnel deployed around the world in the first place. Taking a more critical approach to a military-first approach to international relations has been (and continues to be) a core tenant of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy agenda.

A card celebrating the voyage of the US Navy’s “Great White Fleet” in 1907-1909.

T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi of ProPublica have published a stunning and immersive account of the USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a 30,000-ton container ship in 2017, as well as a similar incident involving the USS John McCain only two months later. The article also invites us to reconsider the prevailing foreign policy wisdom that requires so many ships deployed to so many places all the damn time.

While their account (and the accompanying graphics) are striking in their own right, what stands out is the investigation into how U.S. Navy policy and negligence contributed to the death of seventeen sailors during these accidents. The report begins with a retelling of the events surrounding the Fitzgerald incident, followed by an important question: “How could two $1.8 billion Navy destroyers, protected by one of the most advanced defense systems on the planet, fail to detect oncoming cargo ships broadcasting their locations to a worldwide navigational network?” The team at ProPublica dove into more than 13,000 pages of classified Navy records, public reports, and interviews with crewmembers and maritime experts to get find the answer.

If you recall, immediately after the Fitzgerald and John McCain accidents, embarrassed fleet commanders placed the bulk of the blame on the shoulders of the ships’ crew and officers. Doing so deflected attention away from any systematic failings and “was designed to prep they Navy for potential lawsuits in the aftermath.” The Navy’s investigation into the Fitz’s accident
(led by Rear Admiral Brian Fort) took only 41 days to complete. It concluded that ineptitude, unprofessionalism, distrust, low morale, bad food, poor communication, and the 7th Fleet’s bruising OPTEMPO caused the incident.

While Fort’s findings focused on visceral descriptions of a ship and enlisted sailors in disarray—i.e. a combat information center (CIC) littered with kettle balls and bottles of piss—ProPublica’s report revealed high-level neglect by Navy leadership, serious mistakes by officers, and “extraordinary acts of valor and endurance by the crew.”

If you’ve ever served in the military, you can probably recall multiple scandals in which enlisted men and women were severely punished while their commanding officers skated away relatively unphased. The Fitz and McCain incidents are one examples of such scandals:

The Fitzgerald’s captain selected an untested team to steer the ship at night. He ordered the crew to speed through shipping lanes filled with cargo ships and fishing vessels to free up time to train his sailors the next day. At the time of the collision, he was asleep in his cabin.

The 26-year-old officer of the deck, who was in charge of the destroyer at the time of the crash, had navigated the route only once before in daylight. In a panic, she ordered the Fitzgerald to turn directly into the path of the Crystal.

The Fitzgerald’s crew was exhausted and undertrained. The inexperience showed in a series of near misses in the weeks before the crash, when the destroyer maneuvered dangerously close to vessels on at least three occasions.

The warship’s state of readiness was in question. The Navy required destroyers to pass 22 certification tests to prove themselves seaworthy and battle-ready before sailing. The Fitzgerald had passed just seven of these tests. It was not even qualified to conduct its chief mission, anti-ballistic missile defense.

A sailor’s mistake sparked a fire causing the electrical system to fail and a shipwide blackout a week before the mission resulting in the crash. The ship’s email system, for both classified and non-classified material, failed repeatedly. Officers used Gmail instead.

Its radars were in questionable shape, and it’s not clear the crew knew how to operate them. One could not be made to automatically track nearby ships. To keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour. The ship’s primary navigation system was run by 17-year-old software.

Liberal and conservative voices within the armed forces have used the Fitzgerald and John McCain collisions to argue against cutting our country’s bloated military budget. Cutting personnel, they argue, has increased the Navy’s OPTEMPO—how frequently military personnel are deployed into field operations—which leaves less time for training, technical upgrades, and repair. Accidents will happen, but “as long as very high demand for deployments of military force exists, whether for military or foreign policy purposes, efforts to reduce OPTEMPO . . . will be difficult.” The only solution they can offer us is increasing the size of the active-duty forces.

Of course, this argument overlooks an obvious alternative. If “very high demand for deployment of military force” is placing a dangerous amount of strain on our military, we could decrees that demand. This option is anathema among most military professionals, but we there’s no reason to believe that we have to be churning out and deploy billion-dollar aircraft carriers, destroyers, multi-role fighters, and weapons systems ad infinitum. This isn’t a far-fetched or controversial idea among most Americans:

Although the new federal budget significantly increases U.S. defense spending, only a third of Americans believe the government is spending too little on the military. The majority of Americans, as they have for many years, believe the government is spending too much or about the right amount on defense.

People who like to tell you Democrats don’t have a coherent foreign policy are trying to sell you a bill of goods. Yes, Thomas Frank and Glenn Greenwald want you to focus on the fact that weak-kneed Dems caved to Republican fear-mongering in the 2000s, but the reality is that the party has actually been pretty consistent in their belief that money spent constantly deploying fleets and armies is better spent on diplomacy.

This is all to say that when you hear someone talk about a military investigation that concluded that an accident or scandal happened because of poorly-trained bad enlisted personnel, budget cuts, and Pelosi-induced OPTEMPO demands, you should question their objectivity.

Even ProPublica falls into this trap by implicitly valorizing an admiral who was fired after he “made repeated pleas to his superiors for more men, more ships, more time to train.” Again, the question shouldn’t just be about why the Navy doesn’t have enough men, ships, and time to carryout its missions—it should also be about why there’s so many missions to begin with.

The commonly cited reasons are (1) an increasingly aggressive China, (2) containing North Korea, and (3) America’s commitment to our East Asian and Pacific allies. A cogent liberal response to that is maybe its time to reconsider those reasons. China’s ascending faster than we might like, but that doesn’t mean we should preclude nonmilitary responses to their actions. Furthermore, American foreign policy observers have been over-blowing the neo-Yellow Peril narrative for decades. Second, North Korea should be contained, but (in danger of sounding like Trump) perhaps its time to rely a little more on our regional allies for support. That leads naturally to the third point, our commitment to our allies. Maybe its time to let go of old animosities and let Japan play a more proactive role in the region.

On December 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered sixteen battleships of the US Atlantic Fleet to circumnavigate the world as sign of American might and global ascendancy. The ships were painted white—thus their title “The Great White Fleet”—and manned by some 14,000 sailors and Marines. Their journey took over a year, and it sent an unmistakable message that the United States would be willing and able to use military force anywhere and anytime its interests were threatened.

There journey is considered by many to be “one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the U.S. Navy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The journey of the Great White Fleet was anything but peaceful. It essentially put Japan, China, Korea, and nationalists in the Philippines on notice—the Pacific belonged to the United States, and the Navy was the new law in town. The fleet was impressive, but it shouldn’t be considered a foreign policy success. If anything, it merely kicked off an arms race throughout East Asia.

If there’s a problem with the alternatives I’ve laid out above, it’s that they all emphasize the use of martial power in foreign relations when we should do the opposite. I don’t have the energy or knowledge to come up with what a successful diplomacy-first approach would look like, but it’d probably involve fewer collisions and deaths in the East China Sea. There’s no reason we need to keep trying to shore up the legacy of the Great White Fleet.

In conclusion, do read the ProPublica piece. It’s treatment of the sailors who survived and perished in the Fitzgerald accident is essential reading.

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