'Submarine Tragedy Is Unlikely to Affect U.S.-Japan Ties'

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The USS Greeneville off the coast of Hawaii following the accident

Friday's sinking of a Japanese fishing boat by a U.S. submarine off Hawaii comes at a time of mounting criticism of the U.S. military presence in parts of Japan. How badly will this accident damage the U.S.-Japan military relationship?

Except for on the island of Okinawa, nobody in the Japanese power structure really wants the Americans to leave, because our presence is seen as a vital deterrent to North Korea and China. That's not going to change as a result of this submarine accident. On Okinawa, in particular, relations have been a little strained — only last week a Marine commander was forced to apologize for calling the Okinawans wimps and nuts in an e-mail. But the bottom line is that even though the submarine crash was a terrible tragedy, it's not going to drive our forces out of Japan.

Following the incident in Italy a few years ago where U.S. flyers caused a number of deaths when they accidentally brought down a gondola ski lift, has the U.S. learned anything about damage control in these situations?

Both this case and the gondola case were situations where the pilot, or the skipper, screwed up big time. Even if they did nothing legally wrong, they can't escape the fact that people died. So the U.S. has been very quick to apologize profusely at an official level. And it's quite likely they'll accede to the Japanese request that they salvage the fishing vessel, if it's feasible at that depth. If the bodies are down there, it's the least they can do.

So how did the skipper screw up in this instance?

When you're conducting an emergency blow as an exercise, you're supposed first to make very sure there's nothing above you. So you come up to 50 or 60 feet below the surface and use your sonar to scan the area, and make a visual check using your periscope. You then go back down to 300 or 400 feet, and launch the emergency procedure. Getting back down takes about five minutes, and something could conceivably move into your path in that time. But your periscope is supposed to give you extended visibility of the area, and your sonar should be able to detect a boat going at 11 knots, as this one allegedly was. So you shouldn't run into anything. But they did. So there are only two options: Either the skipper screwed up, or else it's something we're not familiar with.