The Navy commander facing court-martial for a deadly collision last year in the Pacific that sparked major questions about the Navy’s leadership and readiness of the fleet is not going down without a fight.
The defense team for Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who commanded the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with Philippine-flagged shipping vessel off Japan last June, killing seven sailors, is digging in against charges of negligent homicide and other violations of military law and is accusing the Navy of prejudicing the case against its client.
Cmdr. Benson’s decision to plead not guilty and to sharply contest the charges, amid claims that top service brass are seeking to try the case in the court of public opinion, will likely bring more bad news for the sea service, which is already reeling from the fallout of a string of deadly and embarrassing missteps last year. The looming courtroom fight also may provide fuel for simmering frustrations among the Navy’s rank and file with the direction of the service’s leadership under Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations.
In a surprisingly confrontational one-page public statement released last week, Lt. Cmdr. Justin Henderson, the head of Cmdr. Benson’s legal team, said the Navy’s leadership has participated in a public smear campaign against his client.
The Navy’s top brass “have repeatedly used public forums to assign guilt, foreclose legitimate defenses and cast unwarranted aspersions” on Cmdr. Benson’s reputation as a Navy officer, Cmdr. Henderson wrote.
“Rather than achieving accountability, the Navy’s strategy harms the very system of justice that is designed to protect sailors,” he said of comments made by service leaders, including Adm. Richardson and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran.
“Subverting this [legal] process through extratribunal statements only undermines fundamental fairness and erodes public confidence in the entire military justice system,” he added.
Although prosecutors have yet to file formal charges against Cmdr. Benson, including a possible charge of negligent homicide, the Navy officer will plead not guilty once the charges are officially filed, Cmdr Henderson told The Washington Times on Monday.
Navy brass rarely, if ever, mentioned Cmdr. Benson or other officers accused of negligence and command misconduct by name during media briefings on the service’s efforts to address training and operational shortfalls in the Pacific. But the implications from comments of top Navy leaders over who was responsible for the incidents involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain were made clear in no uncertain terms.
A 7th Fleet statement in August announcing that the commander was being relieved read in part, “The collision was avoidable and both ships demonstrated poor seamanship. Within the Fitzgerald, flawed … teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the collision that claimed the lives of seven Fitzgerald sailors, injured three more and damaged both ships.”
A Navy investigation later found Cmdr. Benson was sleeping when the bow of a Philippines-flagged container ship collided with the side of his ship. He suffered what has been described as a “traumatic brain injury” from the impact and was left clinging to the side of the ship for 15 minutes before the crew rescued him.
Two months after the incident with the Fitzgerald, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, resulting in the deaths of 10 sailors.
Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who headed the 7th Fleet’s command in the Pacific, was forced into early retirement in January. A number of senior officers and sailors were fired or faced disciplinary charges under Commander Task Force 70, the unit within the Navy’s 7th Fleet where the McCain and Fitzgerald were assigned.
But top officials at the Navy Yard went further. Adm. Richardson called for a pair of wide-ranging Navy reviews initiated in the wake of the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents. One focused explicitly on the Pacific’s 7th Fleet and another was conducted servicewide. Both reviews found several failings in Navy crew preparedness and ability to carry out the most basic seagoing activities during service operations.
It was the initiation of the Pacific-wide and servicewide reviews that irked current and former Navy officers and sailors, already exasperated by leadership’s handling of the situation, sources told The Washington Times.
The reviews ordered by Adm. Richardson — particularly the one focusing on the 7th Fleet — were criticized as unnecessary and a way of undermining the fleet’s leadership because the fleet’s operational chain of command already had issued disciplinary actions and dismissals.
“There is a difference between the operators and the administrators,” a Navy source said. “And the [chief of naval operations] is not part of the operational chain of command” of the 7th Fleet.
Critics said the reviews were disingenuous because top Navy officials were well aware of operational readiness problems long before the crashes.
Shortly after the stand-down order was issued, Tom Callender, who once was in charge of capabilities for the office of the deputy undersecretary of the Navy, reached out to former colleagues in uniform to get a read on the situation. The majority of the officers and sailors with whom he spoke said the deadly collisions were no surprise, he told The Times.
“There were warnings,” said Mr. Callender, now a senior defense fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said the warnings went unnoticed or unheeded by senior Navy brass.
The decision-makers at headquarters in Washington “were so far removed from the waterfront that they were not as aware of what the problem really was,” he said.
A pair of reports by the Government Accountability Office in 2015 and 2017 outlined numerous shortfalls in Navy readiness around the globe. Navy leaders saw a lack of basic seamanship skills, a result of minimal or insufficient training, as an acceptable trade-off to field a smaller fleet against a growing number of threats. Navy leaders attempted to squeeze every dollar into operations and expanding the fleet, which left little time or funding for training.
As a result of inadequate training, Navy crews were ill-prepared to handle the rigors of the unrelenting operational tempo of the Pacific.
“When the GAO says we are outside the readiness model,” the conditions were set for situations like the McCain and Fitzgerald to take place, a Navy official told The Times.
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