The tragic mishap involving a Japanese fishing vessel and a US nuclear submarine has raised so many questions about naval procedures and practices that it calls for the most thorough investigation possible. The formal court of inquiry announced Feb. 17 by the Navy should provide just such a probe.
Submarine experts have expressed astonishment that such a collision between a sub and a civilian craft ever could have happened. The maneuver being practiced by the USS Greeneville - an emergency quick ascent from the depths - demands exact preparatory reconnaissance to be sure the surface is clear. The submarine has multiple means of accomplishing this.
The inquiry should throw light on this basic mystery.
In addition, it will probe whether the presence of 15 civilian observers on board the Greeneville may have interfered with the crew's performance. Some of the civilian guests, who were invited along as part of a PR effort by the Navy, were reported to have had their hands on the sub's controls (with a crew member instructing them) as it surfaced.
That revelation, which didn't come out immediately, caused understandable shock in Japan. The Bush administration has halted such civilian excursions. A good first step.
Indeed, the incident has heightened Japan's current political turmoil. The prime minister could fall, not least because he kept on with a round of golf after first hearing of the tragedy.
The Navy's probe, as well as one by the National Transportation Safety Board, will be key. The US must show a vital ally its determination to get to the bottom of this matter. It needs to set an example of honest and critical self-examination.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society