Early in the morning of June 17th, 56 nautical miles off the entrance to Tokyo Bay, a container ship crashed into the side of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, an Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer, below the ship’s bridge. Only heroic action by the ship’s crew, most of whom had been asleep, kept the Fitzgerald from sinking, as water poured into the berthing areas for 116 members of the crew, a machinery room, and the radio room. The captain’s cabin was also hit directly, trapping the CO inside. He had to be medevacked ashore.
What happened? It was 1:30 in the morning, to be sure, but the night was clear. Ships not only have watches, they have running lights and radar. They also have transponders so other ships in the area can know exactly where they are. And destroyers, unlike cargo containers, are extremely nimble ships, capable of both high speed (over 30 knots in the Fitzgerald’s case) and quick maneuvering. It’s what they’re designed for.
The container ship was to starboard and so had the right of way. But the officer of the deck and the rest of the watch should have had no trouble whatever keeping clear, even in the very crowded waters near one of the world’s great harbors. If it was just hugely incompetent seamanship, then heads, including the captain’s, will roll.
But was it? It seems almost impossible to imagine such incompetence in a highly trained U.S. Navy crew. (How highly trained, is shown by the fact that they were able to keep the ship afloat after being rammed at considerable speed in the middle of the night.)
And, indeed, there are reports that make it seem that something far more sinister might have been afoot. The AP is reporting that the crash, originally reported as happening at 2:20 AM, after the Japanese Coast Guard was notified by the container ship at 2:25. But it now seems that the event happened at 1:30 AM. The Fitzgerald was fighting for its life, but what kept the container ship from reporting something so serious for nearly an hour?
Further, there is at least one report, by Tom Lifson at the American Thinker, indicating that the container ship had had both its running lights and transponder off. Since that would have severely compromised its own safety, it’s hard to imagine anything but intent to ram the Fitzgerald.
It’s far too early to be sure of anything. But the only two explanations for this would seem to be extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Fitzgerald or evil intent on the part of the container ship. If it’s the latter, then we have a phrase for that: asymmetric warfare.