Investigation: USS Connecticut South China Sea Grounding Result of Lax Oversight, Poor Planning

More than two years of lax oversight from leadership on one of the U.S. Navy’s most powerful submarines ultimately led to the grounding of the attack boat on an uncharted, underwater seamount in the South China Sea, according to an investigation into the Oct. 2 incident. USS Connecticut (SSN-22) was five months into a surge […]

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

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

USS Connecticut (SSN-22) was five months into a surge deployment at the request of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to the Western Pacific when the nuclear attack boat grounded on the seamount while the submarine was traveling at a high speed in waters that were poorly charted, according to the Oct. 29, 2021 command investigation overseen by the director of U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Maritime Headquarters Rear Adm. Christopher Cavanaugh. The investigation was released on Monday.

The heavily redacted report cites a pattern of uneven oversight and a poor command climate from former Connecticut commanding officer Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani set the conditions for the boat’s performance on the day it grounded on the seamount in the South China Sea.

“No single action or inaction caused this mishap, but it was preventable. It resulted from an accumulation of errors and omissions in navigation planning, watch team execution, and risk management, Cavanaugh wrote.

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

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

In the hours leading up to the grounding, the crew had several chances to prevent the incident but ignored warnings that the boat was at risk, Cavanaugh wrote.

Grounding

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

On Oct. 2, Connecticut was traveling at high speeds in the South China Sea toward Okinawa for a humanitarian evacuation when the grounding occurred. Speed and location information were redacted from the report, but a reference in the footnotes of the investigation gives unclassified performance statistics for equipment at 24 knots – more than 27 miles per hour.

While the details weren’t contained in the unredacted portions of the report, HUMEVACs to get a member of the crew off the boat occur for a variety of reasons, including family emergencies.

On Oct. 1, Aljilani, executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin, Chief of the Boat Cory Rodgers, the assistant navigator, weapons officer, boat’s engineer, operations officer and others had a planning meeting for the new voyage plan that plotted a temporary route for the evacuation.

“A temporary route may be used at the discretion of the CO, provided the ship is operating on an approved NAVPLAN and has a process for temporary route evaluation and approval,” reads the investigation.
“The CO did not conduct a detailed review of the route.”

To meet the mission, the crew plotted a course through regions that weren’t wholly charted, and the navigator and the boat’s leadership had conflicting ideas as to how well they understood the route.

For example, Aljilani incorrectly thought the route was covered by a classified navigation tool that provides submarine crews a hyper-accurate understanding of the subsurface geography, according to the report.

“The navigation review team, including the CO, incorrectly assessed that Connecticut would be operating in an open ocean environment,” reads the report.

“They should have recognized the ship would be in restricted waters based on the planned track passing near multiple navigation hazards.”

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

Less than an hour before the grounding, the quartermaster of the watch began to see depths that did not align with the planned path of the submarine. The quartermaster of the watch informed the officer of the deck of the inconsistencies with the charted route. Neither the OOD nor the quartermaster informed Aljilani of the mismatch between the fathometer soundings and the chart.

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

“The OOD stated he was concerned with the shallower-than-expected soundings but that he did not assess a need to take aggressive action,” reads the report.
“The OOD did not consider ordering a lower speed.”

Seconds before the collision, “the Sonar Supervisor identified a trace near the bow. The trace was classified as [an animal]. The Sonar Supervisor stated there were no other contacts,” reads the report.

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

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

In his Nov. 29, endorsement of the investigation, U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, wrote he had further issued letters of reprimand for the navigator, assistant navigator the engineer and the OOD at the time of the grounding and removed them from their roles on the ship. He also reprimanded and fired the Chief Electronics Technician, Submarine, Navigation.

Problems Before the Collision

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

From when he took command of the attack boat in August of 2019 to the grounding, Aljilani had been counseled three times for leadership issues by the commodore of the submarine squadron that oversaw the three Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarines, according to the investigation.

Just under a year into the job, Aljilani was counseled via a letter of performance from commander of Submarine Development Squadron Five, Capt. Lincoln Reifsteck. “The letter addressed ‘inadequate supervisory oversight, ineffective accountability practices, and superficial self-assessment’,” reads the investigation.

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

During pre-deployment training, Connecticut hit a pier in Point Loma, Calif., on April 14, 2021, prompting a separate command investigation and a navigation safety stand down for the boat.

The investigating officer recommended “disciplinary action for dereliction of duty,” for Aljilani, Cashin, Rodgers, the officer of the deck at the time of the pier allision and both the navigator and assistant navigator, according to the grounding investigation.

Reifsteck chose to override the officer’s recommendation, reasoning that “while this investigation revealed degraded standards in navigation, planning, poor seamanship, and ineffective command and control, it represented an anomalous performance and not systematic failure… I observed a safe landing from the bridge of USS Connecticut on 13 May 2021, indicating appropriate reflection and training of the crew.”

Reifsteck handed over command of DEVRON 5 a week later.

Former submariner Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, who reviewed the grounding investigation, said any one of the interventions from the commodore would have been a career-ending disciplinary action in another context.

“Normally, I’d expect the guy to get fired,” Clark said.
“I’m very surprised he was kept on as the CO with those obvious problems.”

On May 21 2021, commander of Submarine Forces Pacific Rear. Jeffery Jabalon recommended Connecticut be deployed and on May 24, 2021, then-U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn certified the boat ready to deploy, according to the report.

Connecticut departed on its surge deployment on May 27.

High Demand Asset

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

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

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

According to the investigation, from the 784 days Aljilani was in command of Connecticut 527 days were spent away from Connecticut’s homeport in Bremerton, Wash., a rate much higher than your typical submarine, Hudson Institute’s Bryan Clark told USNI News.

Even if part of that time away was for training in San Diego, the rate is more than double the underway average of a typical attack submarine, which usually has one six-month deployment every two years, Clark said.

One reason the attack boat can have a higher operational tempo is that during its first decade, Connecticut served as a parts supplier for the other two boats in the class – USS Seawolf (SSN-21) and the heavily modified USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) – and did not deploy often, USNI News understands. As a result, Connecticut has excess reactor capacity that will last longer than the serviceable life of the hull, making it a good candidate for surge deployments.

“They did not deploy very frequently for the first ten years,” Clark said.
“Now, it’s making up for lost time.”

The damage from the collision has removed a significant submarine asset from the Navy’s arsenal.

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

“Planning for the availability is ongoing and the Navy has not yet determined if the damage repairs can be executed concurrently with the routine [repair period] or if Connecticut will require a longer dry-docking period. The cost to repair the damage is being calculated,” reads a statement from NAVSEA.

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