“The ship goes to the surface” – Poor navigation, poor leadership led to submarine crash

When the USS Connecticut hit an uncharted underwater hill at nearly 30 miles per hour in October 2021, sailors were rocked so hard that at least one suffered a concussion, and a sailor riding the guard in the engine room reported a huge oil spill which he assumed came from a ruptured pipe. A report released this week by the Navy paints a minute-by-minute picture of the accident aboard the $3 billion Seawolf-class submarine.

On the bridge, trying to make sense of the violent impact, the duty dive officer tells the crew that “the ship is going to the surface” and orders the submarine’s dive planes to climb position maximum. Within seconds the ship was soaring to 31 degrees as another sailor stood ready for an emergency ballast shot. The mate, who suffered a fractured scapula in the accident, ordered the vessel to stabilize at a depth of 160 feet, but the dive officer did not hear the command, and in less than a minute the submarine broke through the surface of the ocean.

The Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-22) arrives at Naval Base Kitsap after completing a four-month deployment to the Western Pacific region in 2012. US Navy photo.

When the on-board computers linked to the GPS satellites overhead, the crew discovered that they were about three quarters of a mile from where they thought they were – a huge navigational error and that meant that they had unknowingly sailed through the waters. it should have been marked as ‘stay away’ on their maps but was not.

Once on the surface, an engineer officer called back from the engine compartment: 5 gallons of cooking oil, used in the galley but stored in a mechanical compartment, had spilled. There was no leak.

A total of 11 sailors were injured in the accident at the bottom of the South China Sea, two seriously enough to require hospitalization, while Connecticut suffered near-catastrophic damage to her bow, including complete loss of her nose.

And the toll of the crash on the crew wasn’t just physical: As the ship limped towards Guam, seven sailors were identified as needing mental health treatment.

In subsequent interviews, investigators found that the number of sailors suffering mental health effects from the grounding had risen to 50.

All of this, the Navy now says, was preventable.

connecticut submarine report
USS Connecticut at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka 2018. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs.

Shallow polls

A command inquiry into the Connecticut grounding – dubbed “an apparent impact from a submerged object” – found that, despite fear and confusion after the violent impact, sailors reacted quickly and effectively to save their vessel .

However, Rear Admiral Christopher J. Cavanaugh, the investigating officer, discovered that the entire Connecticut leadership team, including Commander Cmdr. Cameron M. Aljilani, should be relieved of duty and separated from the Navy for dereliction of duty. Cavanaugh found “an accumulation of errors and omissions in navigation planning, surveillance team execution, and risk management well below US Navy standards. Careful decision-making and following the required procedures in any of these three areas could have prevented the grounding.

Cavanaugh found that Aljilani and his team had been cited for poor performance on several occasions in the previous two years, but had improved little. And, he found, a series of navigational errors in the hours leading up to the accident could have been avoided if the crew had behaved well.

Connecticut Submarine Report
Crew of the Seawolf-class fast attack submarine USS Connecticut in 2018 at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs.

Although much of the exact location and navigational data in Cavanaugh’s report is redacted, the Connecticut appears to have transited through a poorly charted area of ​​ocean, where the crew should have known that uncharted obstacles and Shallower than expected bottom depths may be encountered. The ship’s navigator, who is not named in the public report, “reviewed and recommended an inadequate and unsafe sailing plan,” according to the report. Aljilani, his chief executive and other officers then missed opportunities to question route planning and failed to increase the number of sailors on duty on deck – a common practice in waters with poor underwater mapping, according to the report.

In the hours and minutes leading up to the accident, the bridge duty crew did not realize the ship had derailed, even though the ship’s sounder, called a fathometer, began to indicate a “shoaling rapid” – or an increase in the ocean floor beneath the ship. The mate, who directly supervised the ship’s deck, told Cavanaugh “he was concerned about shallower than expected soundings, but had not assessed the need for aggressive action.”

During a “verification” inspection with Navy instructors months before, Cavanaugh noted, the Connecticut crew had passed a similar scenario, reacting correctly to so-called “yellow” and “red” soundings – to less than 180 meters – from the fathometer, although the crew failed in this test to investigate the theoretical causes.

But even that performance, Cavanaugh found, was overwhelming; he wrote that the crew “peaked to meet the standards during inspections and assessments”, but when the inspectors were gone, “the leaders failed to maintain the day-to-day standards”.

Signs of “ineffective control”

Signs of poor leadership on the USS Connecticut emerged months before the submarine ran aground on an uncharted obstacle at the bottom of the South China Sea, an official Navy investigation has determined. Specifically, six months before Connecticut crashed into an underwater hill, the ship was parking at a dock in Point Loma, Calif., when it collided with – or “joined up with”, in naval terminology – the pier he was approaching.

The April 2021 minor accident revealed problems with the ship’s steering – the same problems, according to an investigator, that led to the October crash.

connecticut submarine report
Just two months before the October 2021 crash, Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani, commanding officer of USS Connecticut, left, welcomes Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, for a tour of the submarine at Fleet Activities Yokosuka. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda S. Kitchner.

A Navy investigation into allition (a collision involves two moving objects, such as two ships, while in an alliance, a moving ship strikes a stationary object), found that Aljilani and his management team maintained “degraded standards of navigation, planning, poor seamanship and ineffective command and control.

A Connecticut inspection in July 2020 came to similar conclusions regarding the crew. Afterwards, Aljilani received a performance letter citing the ship’s senior officers for “inadequate oversight, ineffective accountability practices, and superficial self-evaluation.” Aljilani received a second reprimand, a more formal letter of instruction, in February 2021, before the pier’s allision, “directing him to address the command’s overall performance, lack of improvement and unwillingness to accept the comments”.

But none of the poor inspection results or the allition led to any shootings.

Cavanaugh recommended that Aljilani, his chief executive, the ship’s navigator, assistant navigator, and deck officer at the time of the accident all face non-judicial sanctions and be fired from the navy. The investigator has recommended that all be charged under UCMJ rules for dereliction of duty, and all but the executive officer face charges for improperly endangering a vessel. The report recommends that other sailors, including the boat’s leader, should also be punished, but not separated.

The Connecticut is one of only three Seawolf-class submarines in the Navy, with a crew of 14 officers and 126 enlisted sailors, according to a Navy fact sheet. The class was built to hunt Soviet-era submarines and was expected to number up to 30 ships, but only three were built.

The ship is now back at its homeport of Bremerton, Washington. Repairs are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.

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