Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Senior leaders from the U.S. Navy told a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday that it is "very hard to understand" how two Navy destroyers collided with civilian ships, but chalked up the issues to gaps in readiness and leadership.
Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, Navy Chief of Operations Adm. John Richardson and Government Accountability Office official John Pendleton testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, answering questions about the recent collisions, as well as larger issues of readiness that have been blamed for the incidents, suggesting the branch is stretched too thin.
"The lives of the 17 sailors lost in the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions are priceless, and I mourn their loss," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in his opening statement.
"Fatal training accidents have taken four times the lives of our service members than our enemies have in combat. This cannot continue," McCain said.
Spencer, Richardson and Pendleton all testified that the Navy is suffering from budget and readiness woes. All three said that too much is being asked of the Navy as a whole, particularly forward-deployed ships like the 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific.
Richardson said that although budgetary and operational problems may have contributed to the training and readiness issues facing the Navy, leadership problems were the primary cause of the accidents.
"I've testified several times about the triple-whammy -- the corrosive confluence of high operational tempos, inadequate budgets and budget uncertainty," Richardson said.
"Make no mistake sir, though these factors may exert a negative force on the challenges we face, at the core of this issue is about leadership. Especially command," Richardson said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questioned why the Navy had agreed with GAO warnings over training deficiencies in a 2015 report yet taken no action for two years, with Richardson saying there was "nothing defensible" he could say to explain the hold-up.
Though the theme of the hearing was primarily over how a lack of money, ships and basic training standards are harming Navy readiness, some questioned how sophisticated destroyers like the McCain and Fitzgerald could be involved in collisions with civilian vessels.
"How in the world does a billion dollar destroyer not know there is a freighter is closing in on it," Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Richardson. He questioned how the ship's radar systems failed to warn the destroyers of an impending collision. "I've talked to Maine lobstermen who were scratching their heads, they could tell when a flock of seagulls was descending off their bow."
"It is very hard to understand how these sophisticated warships let a ship get in that close," Richardson said.
The SASC hearing followed a similar one by the House Armed Services Committee last week that mixed understand over the Navy's problems with criticism of operational management.
A number of senior officers have been relieved of duty, and others censured, following the accidents, including the heads of the 7th Fleet and Task Force 70.
The Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine-flagged cargo vessel off Japan on June 17, killing seven sailors and injuring three others, including the ship's commander. The commander and other leadership on the Fitzgerald were later relieved of duty.
The McCain collided with a Liberian-flagged container ship east of the Straits of Malacca near Singapore on Aug. 25, killing 10 sailors, just two months after the Fitzgerald incident.
The two fatal accidents followed two other incidents involving Japan-based surface warfare vessels earlier this year. In May, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain was struck by a South Korean fishing boat, and in January, the cruiser USS Lake Antietam ran aground while trying to anchor near Japan, leading to serious damage to its propellers.