The captain, executive officer and chief of the boat of the Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut, based in Bremerton, have all been fired following the vessel’s strike of an underwater mountain in the South China Sea on Oct. 2.
The U.S. Navy made the announcement of the dismissals on Thursday. Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the 7th Fleet, relieved Cmdr. Cameron Alilani, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin and Master Chief Sonar Technician Cory Rodgers of their duties “due to a loss of confidence,” according to a Navy news release.
The release stated that “Thomas determined sound judgment, prudent decision-making and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watch teach execution and risk management could have prevented the incident.”
The $3.1 billion vessel is one of only three Seawolf-class boats in the Navy’s underwater fleet.
Navy investigators are expected to come up with answers about the high-profile incident — but just when or what their conclusions will be haven’t yet been disclosed. But Forbes magazine reported Wednesday that the severity of the collision may force it out of service for several years, or even into premature retirement.
A report by the USNI News said that an investigation found the Connecticut became grounded on a seamount, or underwater mountain, that did not appear on any charts in the area.
It’s not known to what extent the vessel was damaged by the collision or the total cost of the damage. USS Connecticut is in Guam now for repairs. Officials also haven’t disclosed how the submarine collided with the seamount. Retired Cmdr.
Bryan Clark, a former submariner who is now the senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., told the Task & Purpose publication that it was possible the submarine was not using certain sonars at the time of the strike that could have detected the obstacle. He noted those sonars, however, would have given away the vessel’s position in the South China Sea.
Clark also told the publication that the leadership team’s dismissal could have been made because Navy leaders believed they did not do enough navigation planning prior to the mission.
The retired commander told Navy Times that piloting a submarine in the South China Sea’s shallow depths and rugged topography, which includes canyons and mountain ranges, combined with its mission at the time of the collision, made its journey more difficult.
The incident made waves on the diplomatic front as well as within Navy headquarters. In addition to being a challenging location to traverse, the waters of the South China Sea are contested by Chinese naval forces and the U.S. 7th Fleet.
Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military Times that the underwater territory has been known by mapmakers to be dangerous grounds for centuries.
“It’s a shallow area of sea … with relatively few passable sea lanes, and until pretty modern times, it was very poorly surveyed,” Poling said.
Clark, the retired commander, said portions of the sea are just 500- to 600-feet deep — a challenge for submariners in keeping their vessel safely above the seafloor but far enough from the surface to avoid detection.
“You can’t operate too deep and still be far enough from the seafloor to avoid running into an uncharted seamount,” he said. “You have to depend on your charts being accurate, and you have to leave enough room between you and the bottom to ensure that, if there is an uncharted object or seamount, you’ll be above it.”
But Clark did say such mishaps rarely occur because missions conducted by vessels like the Connecticut are carefully planned. He told Military Times that his suspects the mishap was a result of the difficult terrain, not because of a readiness issue.
“This incident is in an area where you’d be doing intense operations,” Clark told the publication. “I have to assume that this was all thought through, and it just ends up being a low probability event.”