Submarine accident sparks debate over Navy policy

Some say putting civilian contributors at the controls of our warships is reckless -- but did that cause the deaths of nine Japanese?

Published February 17, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

Last Saturday's tragic accident off the coast of Hawaii, in which a U.S. Navy submarine collided with a Japanese fishing boat, caused more than one wave of disturbance for the U.S. armed forces. The accident brought to light a dubious naval policy that puts civilians behind the controls of billion-dollar nuclear submarines.

As Japan mourned the deaths of four high school students and five other passengers on an educational program aboard the Ehime Maru, the public learned even more sensational news about the USS Greeneville's unfortunate maneuver: Two civilians were at the controls when it began the emergency surfacing procedure that resulted in the deadly collision with the fishing vessel. What's more, it turns out that this isn't so unusual.

Those revelations only exacerbated tensions that have been simmering for years between the Japanese public and the U.S. military. Anti-military sentiment in Japan has been fueled by several high-profile rape cases, in which American servicemen attacked young Japanese girls.

Now the Japanese, stunned by the loss of schoolchildren and teachers, are showing little understanding toward the Navy's policy of offering rides on its ships as a P.R. tool for promoting volunteer recruitment and drumming up political support for military appropriations.

Numerous journalists this week shared their own experiences at the controls of similar ships -- all providing testimonials as to how widespread the practice has become.

The 16 civilians aboard the Greeneville weren't the first nonservicemen to steer the vessel -- Tipper Gore took her turn behind the controls in 1999. But that wasn't how the Navy spun it earlier this week. The Navy didn't disclose that the Greeneville had civilians at the controls during the emergency surfacing procedure until two of those passengers shared their story with NBC's "Today" on Thursday. Only then, belatedly, did the Navy come forward to admit those facts.

Inevitably, questions have emerged about the safety of allowing civilians to assist in the navigation of a dangerous and high-precision weapon of war.

"It was very foolhardy," says Paul Beaver of Jane's Defence, a military intelligence group in London. "I see absolutely no problem with civilians being on nuclear attack submarines. In fact, I think it's a very positive thing for the U.S. Navy.

"However," he adds, "to put them into control positions, irrespective of how trusted they are and even whether they are former submariners, and then to do an evolution like a main ballast blow -- which is the emergency surfacing drill, a difficult and dangerous maneuver in which the submarine actually has the capability of foundering ... is foolhardy. It's a dangerous maneuver and you should never allow civilians to be involved in that. They can certainly watch it, but they should never be at the controls."

Media outlets have also reported on theatrical simulated emergencies, apparently intended to spice up the ride for the sake of civilian guests. "I'm sure they do it to make it the trip of a lifetime," Beaver says. "It may or may not be a normal thing in the U.S. Navy, but I don't think it is in any other navy ... I think it's the arrogance that I see in the American armed forces," he asserts.

But others see the practice differently. Harlan Ullman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the civilian ride-alongs pose little or no threat to safety. "It's acceptable and it contributed nothing to the accident in my judgment," he says. "You could put a monkey behind those controls and it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Referring to the emergency surfacing procedure specifically, he states that once the ascent is initiated, "it's like having a child in a car with a toy wheel. You've got very little control and you've got the crew right there."

A number of the civilians on board were contributors to the Missouri Memorial Association, a nonprofit organization helping to preserve the USS Missouri, the ship on which the treaty that brought an end to World War II was signed. Because the accident involved donors being allowed questionable access to government areas, comparisons were made to recent Washington campaign finance scandals. Had the Greeneville become a seafaring Lincoln Bedroom?

"It's all very well to have people fundraising," says Jane's Beaver, who agrees in theory with allowing donors on the sub. "By all means take them to see a nuclear-powered submarine, but don't allow them to be in the control room. Don't allow them to have the access that they've got."

"You can't directly relate it to campaign contributions," he adds, though he does think the practice is likely a result of "pressure that comes from the top."

But CSIS's Ullman takes a more defensive tone toward the Navy. "This is a not-for-profit; this is not someone's election campaign," Ullman says. "If people want to contribute money so that it becomes a national landmark or shrine and the Navy wants to give them a ride in a submarine as a token of gratitude, what's wrong with that? What's corrupting about that?

"This is not the Lincoln Bedroom; this is not Bill Clinton. These are honorable people and this was a horrible accident. Don't besmirch standards automatically."

The current situation comes at an awkward time, when authorities are investigating a pattern of U.S. servicemen sexually harassing or molesting Japanese teens. That has made the Japanese communities surrounding U.S. bases wary of their neighbors, even if they are there to help defend Japan against foreign aggressors.

And no doubt, the indirect involvement of retired Adm. Richard Macke, who reportedly arranged the civilians' trip aboard the Greeneville, will only stir deeper resentment. Macke was commander in chief of the Pacific Command until he was forced to retire in 1995 after a string of scandals, ranging from fraternization with female officers to off-color remarks.

But the Japanese most remember him for an off-the-cuff quip that ultimately cost him his job. At a 1995 on-the-record breakfast for Pentagon reporters, which happened shortly after the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by three U.S. servicemen, Macke offered this unforgettably callous line: "I've said several times, for the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl."

It will take weeks if not months before National Transportation Safety Board investigators are able to determine exactly what caused the accident. In the meantime, questions remain about the safety of civilian ride-alongs. President Bush has called for an end to the program until we have answers.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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