She has been forward deployed to the US 7th Fleet for a dozen years and was scheduled to finally arrive back to San Diego tomorrow, however instead of telling stories of missions accomplished and far off port calls, the Commanding Officer of USS Essex, Capt. Chuck Litchfield, will be faced with serious questions on why his ship collided with the refueling tanker, USNS Yukun, during an underway replenishment at sea (UNREP) today.
And he’s only been in command of the ship for 3 weeks…
The US Navy has so far traced the root cause of the collision to an apparent steering malfunction on board the Essex. Specific details of this steering malfunction are not yet available, however the Navy has reported that “no one was injured, there was no fuel spilled and the ships’ fuel tanks and systems were not compromised.”
There is very little room for error during UNREP operations which in most (if not all) cases happen at a speed of 13 knots while the ships are separated by no more than roughly 180 feet, usually less. While conducting these operations, the steering gear room is manned with a direct line of communication with the bridge and the ability to take “local control” of the steering system in case of any sort of issue.
At 13 knots and at such close separation, the ability to react quickly with the right solution is critical to preventing a collision. The other issue is that as the ships get closer, the Venturi effect becomes more pronounced which in effect, sucks the two ships together, further exasperating an already dire situation.
The Navy comments that they will conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the collision, and a full damange assessment is ongoing.
Essex is scheduled to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in and around the Hawaiian Islands this summer, and will undergo an extensive maintenance availability period at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) in San Diego after its return.
Essex will be assigned to Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 3 within U.S. Third Fleet and homeported in San Diego. Third Fleet leads naval forces in the Eastern Pacific from the West Coast of North America to the International Date Line.