Investigation: USS Connecticut grounding in South China Sea, result of lax oversight and poor planning

USS Connecticut (SSN-22) Sea Wolf-class nuclear attack submarine departing San Diego, Calif., December 15, 2021. San Diego WebCam Photo

More than two years of lax oversight from the leadership of one of the US Navy’s most powerful submarines ultimately led to the attack boat’s grounding on an uncharted seamount in the South China Sea. south, according to an investigation into the Oct. 2 incident.

USS Connecticut (SSN-22) was five months into a peak deployment at the request of the US Indo-Pacific Command in the Western Pacific when the nuclear attack boat ran aground on the seamount as the The submarine was moving at high speed in poorly charted waters, according to the October 29, 2021 command inquiry overseen by Director of Maritime Headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Christopher Cavanaugh. The investigation was made public on Monday.

Heavily redacted report cites pattern of uneven oversight and poor command climate from elders Connecticut Commanding Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani set the boat’s performance conditions the day it ran aground on the seamount in the South China Sea.

“No action or inaction caused this accident, but it was preventable. It was the result of an accumulation of errors and omissions in the planning of the navigation, the execution of the surveillance team and the management of the risks, Cavanaugh wrote.

“Careful decision-making and adherence to standards in any of these three areas could have prevented grounding,”

The report also describes a high operational tempo for the attack boat which spent 67% of its last two and a half years away from its homeport of Bremerton, Wash., during Aljilani’s 784 days in command.

In the hours before the grounding, the crew had several opportunities to prevent the incident but ignored warnings that the boat was in danger, Cavanaugh wrote.

Grounding

The USS Connecticut (SSN-22) arrives at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan for a scheduled port visit July 31, 2021. US Navy photo

October 2, Connecticut was moving at high speed in the South China Sea towards Okinawa for a humanitarian evacuation when the grounding occurred. Speed ​​and location information has been removed from the report, but a reference in the footnotes to the survey gives unclassified performance statistics for the equipment at 24 knots – over 27 miles a ‘hour.

Although the details are not contained in the unredacted parts of the report, HUMEVACs to get a crew member off the boat occur for a variety of reasons, including family emergencies.

On October 1, Aljilani, executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin, ship’s chief Cory Rodgers, assistant navigator, armament officer, ship’s engineer, operations officer and others had a planning meeting for the new voyage plan which charted a temporary evacuation route.

“A temporary route may be used at the discretion of the commanding officer, provided the vessel is operating on an approved NAVPLAN and has a process for temporary route evaluation and approval,” the inquest said.
“The commander did not carry out a detailed review of the route.”

To meet the mission, the crew plotted a course through regions that were not fully charted, and the navigator and the ship’s management had conflicting ideas as to their understanding of the route.

For example, Aljilani mistakenly believed the route was covered by a classified navigation tool that provides submarine crews with a hyper-accurate understanding of subterranean geography, according to the report.

“The Navigation Review Team, including the Commanding Officer, incorrectly assessed that Connecticut would work in an open ocean environment,” the report read.

“They should have recognized that the vessel would be in restricted waters based on the predicted track passing close to multiple navigational hazards.”

While underway on the road, the crew took continuous readings with the onboard fathometer, which measures the depth of water below the keel. The soundings are used by the crew to compare the water depth on the charts with the actual depth under the keel.

Less than an hour before the grounding, the quartermaster of the watch began to see depths that did not line up with the planned course of the submarine. The quartermaster of the watch informed the mate of the inconsistencies with the plotted route. Neither the OOD nor the quartermaster informed Aljilani of the discrepancy between the fathometer soundings and the map.

Closer to the time of the grounding, the quartermaster began to get shallower readings and informed the OOD.

“The OOD said it was concerned about the shallower-than-expected polling, but did not assess the need for aggressive action,” the report read.
“The OOD did not consider ordering a lower gear.”

Seconds before the collision, “The Sonar Supervisor identified a track near the bow. The trace was classified as [an animal]. The sonar supervisor said there were no further contacts,” the report read.

Then Connecticut based on the seamount. Eleven crew members suffered minor injuries from the impact and the boat lost its radar dome while in transit to Guam. A Naval Sea Systems Command assessment after the submarine was placed in drydock in February found that the damage “is located in the bow of the ship and the lower part of the rudder”.

Aljilani, XO Cashin and COB Rodgers were promptly removed from their positions and issued letters of reprimand following the conclusion of the Oct. 29 investigation, USNI News reported at the time.

In his Nov. 29 endorsement of the investigation, the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, wrote that he had additionally issued letters of reprimand for the navigator, assistant navigator engineer and the OOD at the time of the grounding and removed them from their roles on the vessel. He also reprimanded and fired the chief technician in electronics, submarine, navigation.

Problems before the collision

Cmdt. Cameron Aljilani, of Anaheim, Calif., speaks during a change of command ceremony for the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-22) held at US Naval Undersea Museum, Keyport, Washington. US Navy Photo

Since taking command of the attack boat in August 2019 until the grounding, Aljilani had been advised on three occasions for leadership issues by the commodore of the submarine squadron who oversaw the three Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarines, according to the investigation.

A little less than a year into his work, Aljilani was advised via a performance letter from the commanding officer of Underwater Development Squadron Five, Captain Lincoln Reifsteck. “The letter addressed ‘inadequate oversight, ineffective accountability practices and superficial self-evaluation,'” the survey read.

In February, Reifsteck sent a letter of instructions to Aljilani “directing him to address the command’s overall performance, lack of improvement, and reluctance to accept feedback.”

During pre-deployment training, Connecticut struck a dock in Point Loma, California on April 14, 2021, triggering a separate command investigation and a safe boating ban for the boat.

The investigating officer recommended ‘disciplinary action for dereliction of duty’ for Aljilani, Cashin, Rodgers, the mate at the time of the pier allition and both the navigator and assistant navigator, according to the stranding investigation.

Reifsteck opted to override the officer’s recommendation, believing that “although this investigation revealed degraded standards of navigation, planning, lack of seamanship and ineffective command and control, it represented abnormal performance and not a systematic failure… I observed a safe landing from the deck of USS Connecticut on May 13, 2021, indicating proper crew consideration and training.

Reifsteck handed over command of DEVRON 5 a week later.

Former submariner Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who reviewed the grounding investigation, said one of the commodore’s interventions would have been career-ending disciplinary action at a other context.

“Normally I would expect the guy to get fired,” Clark said.
“I am very surprised that he was kept on as commander with these obvious issues.”

May 21, 2021, Commander Submarine Forces Pacific Rear. Recommended Jeffery Jabalon Connecticut be deployed and on May 24, 2021, Vice Admiral Scott Conn, then commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet, certified the boat ready for deployment, according to the report.

Connecticut departed for her reinforcement deployment on 27 May.

Asset in high demand

Fast attack submarine USS Seawolf (SSN-21) surfaces through Arctic ice at the North Pole July 30, 2015. US Navy Photo

Connecticut is one of three Seawolf-class (SSN-21) submarines designed at the end of the Cold War to hunt Soviet submarines in blue waters.

Seawolfs are faster, can dive deeper than the Navy’s Los Angeles and Virginia class attack boats, and have a weapons room that can hold dozens of torpedoes. All three boats are among the most heavily armed ships in the fleet and are in high demand.

According to the investigation, in the 784 days that Aljilani was at the helm of Connecticut 527 days have been spent away from Connecticut homeport in Bremerton, Wash., a much higher rate than your typical submarine, Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute told USNI News.

Even though some of that time was spent training in San Diego, the rate is more than double the running average of a typical attack submarine, which typically has a six-month deployment every two years, Clark said.

One of the reasons the attack boat can have a higher operational tempo is that in its first decade, Connecticut served as parts supplier for the other two boats of the class – USS Sea bass (SSN-21) and the heavily modified USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) – and hasn’t deployed often, according to USNI News. As a result, Connecticut has excess reactor capacity that will outlast the useful life of the hull, making it a good candidate for surge deployments.

“They didn’t deploy very frequently for the first ten years,” Clark said.
“Now we are making up for lost time.”

The collision damage removed an important submarine asset from the Navy’s arsenal.

According to the Naval Sea Systems Command, Connecticut will begin repairs in February as part of an extended drydock repair period Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility

“Availability planning is underway and the Navy has not yet determined whether damage repairs can be executed concurrently with routine [repair period] or if Connecticut will require a longer drydock period. The cost of repairing the damage is being calculated,” read a statement from NAVSEA.

NAVSEA did not provide a time estimate for completion of the work.

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