Washington and Lincoln -- Another U.S. Navy destroyer has had a collision at sea. Ten sailors were trapped below decks and drowned. This time it was the USS John S McCain, approaching the Straits of Malacca after transiting the South China Sea, where China is building military bases in the Paracel and Spratley islands.
The cause of the collision is under investigation. Early reports indicated the destroyer may have lost its steering. This is not uncommon; it is usually remedied by shifting to backup "after-steering," named for its location in the aft of the ship, near the rudder. Shifting to after-steering is a routine drill, sometimes requested by those on watch to relieve boredom. While in training, I once stood after-steering watch at night on the USS Kitty Hawk with a sailor who had a hard time staying awake. That was 1962; but simple inattention could be no less a problem in 2017, and cause a collision.
It is the Seventh Fleet's fourth major accident in the past several months. The fleet's commander in Yokosuka, Japan, has been relieved of duty for lack of proper fleet training. There are also suggestions* that fleet watch bills are too demanding, leading to crew fatigue. But this is nothing new. To some of us who have known port-and-starboard watch bills, three section watches are tolerable.
The disaster has had repercussions far beyond the crew casualty list. China propagandists were quick to suggest that the U.S. Navy, with its multiple accidents, was a menace to safe navigation and that America was acting as an arrogant hegemon in the region. China, of course, is eager to have its neighbors break alliances with the U.S., both in terms of defense and trade.
What has this to do with the price of beans? A lot, literally. And the price of corn and wheat and milo. This comes on top of a U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which China is pleased to see fall apart. Coupled with statements from the president that the U.S. may no longer be committed to defense alliances in that part of the world, the outlook for the Nebraska farm economy has only dimmed further.
*Many in Washington were quick to blame the collision on lack of proper funding for defense, especially on the budget "sequester" that took a meat-axe to defense spending and doubtless impaired readiness. The sequester was a foolish contrivance employed a few years ago to see if the executive or the congressional branch would be first to blink over appropriations for defense readiness. Neither blinked, so rather than budgeting rationally for defense, readiness suffered instead of, say, obsolescent pork-barrel-driven weapons systems. Unfortunately, the Navy may have shown too much "can do" spirit, to which there is a limit. The commander of the Seventh Fleet is now being condemned for trying to do too much with too little, and there may be some truth in that. It is surely time to revise the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, to revise or do away with reconciliation and sequester processes that have worked in recent years more to distort rational budgeting than to enhance it.