Sub crash forces Navy to review civilian ride-alongs

Allowing taxpayers hands-on experience can help Pentagon PR. But the practice may be too risky.

As a civilian, I have flown a massive, eight-engine B-52 bomber on a practice mission involving deadly cruise-missile attacks on unknowing small towns in Idaho. I've also driven the US Army's main battle tank and triggered its fire-breathing cannon. My main memory here is of the sergeant behind me yelling "Slow down!" as I skidded around corners like a kid on his new dirt bike.

For the nonexpert taxpayer or budget-writing lawmaker, there's nothing like a hands-on demonstration of military might to make one a true believer. At least that's the hope of the Pentagon, which for years has invited guests to observe - and take part in - military exercises.

Now, with the deadly collision between the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville and the Japanese fishing trawler Ehime Maru, that practice is under sharp scrutiny.

After first resisting calls to reveal details of the Feb. 9 accident, which resulted in the loss of nine Japanese crewmen, teachers, and high school students, the Navy now pledges a thorough investigation. A formal court of inquiry, open to the public and conducted by three admirals, is scheduled to begin Thursday at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii. The National Transportation Safety Board is finishing up its independent inquiry as well.

Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of the US Pacific Fleet, promises "a full and open accounting for the American and Japanese people." The Greeneville's captain (who has been relieved of command), executive officer, and officer of the deck could face courts-martial.

Japanese officials and the families of those lost in the accident have been especially critical of the fact that 16 civilians were guests aboard the submarine. Several of those civilians had contributed to a fund for restoring the battleship USS Missouri. The Navy acknowledges that two civilians were handling some of the submarine's important controls when it surfaced rapidly and hit the Ehime Maru.

Officials (and the civilians involved) insist that qualified officers and seamen closely monitored every move. But investigators will want to know if the presence of so many extra people in an already-crowded submarine environment was a distraction. Were naval officers, knowing how important VIPs are to the Navy brass, more concerned with impressing their guests than in making absolutely sure the rapid ascent maneuver they were about to perform was safe?

In any case, the episode showed that what military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called the "fog of war" - the uncertainty of events - can be just as troublesome in peacetime as it is in combat.

In addition to politicians and other politically important civilians, the armed services also invite family members and journalists to observe and sometimes take part in military exercises.

My eight-hour flight aboard a US Air Force B-52 bomber was spent mainly on hands and knees in an uncomfortably cramped space behind the pilots. For a brief period, I took the co-pilot's seat and was allowed to maneuver the flight controls in gentle turns. When it came time to simulate a nuclear-missile attack - "There goes Malad City!" someone announced cheerily over the intercom - I was strictly an observer again.

TOO REAL? Civilians who were aboard the USS Greeneville when the submarine collided with a Japanese fishery-training vessel on Friday, Feb. 9, are transported back to shore aboard a support vessel. Two civilian guests were seated at controls when the submarine surfaced and sank the Japanese ship. The US Navy is currently investigating the incident.

My battle-tank adventure was part of the Pentagon's attempt to show off the controversial M-1 Abrams tank. Pentagon reporters were helicoptered out to the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. After detailed briefings, the journalists were invited to drive the older M-60 tank and its very expensive replacement, the M-1.

Young tank-crew members talked about their need for the newer version to counter their likely enemies in the field. At the end of the day, even skeptics would have picked the M-1 over the M-60 if they had to face hostile fire - which is just what the Army wanted them (us) to think.

Another reason for civilians to be aboard fighting ships is to boost morale. The Navy routinely schedules short cruises for family members. Just before my Vietnam cruise as a naval aviator in 1968, my wife and her brother came aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea for a day's trip off the coast of California. I'm not sure my wife was reassured about my future by watching jets being catapulted off the flight deck and making tailhook landings. (Because of the high risk, only pilots without family members watching flew during these "dependents' cruises.") But my brother-in-law's friend would not leave the ship without having his picture taken wearing my flight gear and displaying the pistol I carried. He was a walking recruitment poster.

Now, the future of such activities is in doubt. For the moment, the Navy has curtailed hands-on civilian activity aboard its ships. And President Bush has directed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review all Pentagon policies on civilian activity during military demonstrations and exercises.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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