'Civilians at Sub's Controls Had No Significance in Killer Crash'

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The USS Greeneville off the coast of Hawaii following the accident

TONY KARON: The Navy says the civilians sitting at two of the three control stations aboard the USS Greeneville were not a factor in its collision with a Japanese vessel during an emergency surfacing routine. Is this issue something of a red herring?

MARK THOMPSON: It's not a red herring, but it's not really significant either. It simply looks really bad. The civilians may have been sitting at the controls during the emergency blow, but they were not controlling the vessel. Nobody controls a submarine's course during such an exercise. It's like a cork floating to the surface — nobody's driving it; it's driven by its own buoyancy. The issue is who gave the order to begin the surfacing procedure, on the basis that there was no danger on the surface. That was the ship's command, not the civilians. So at least from what we know right now, it's correct to say that the civilians had no hand in the accident. But of course it looks terrible for the Navy that there were civilians sitting at the controls during an accident that killed nine people.

Particularly for the Japanese government, who are outraged that they had to hear this in media reports, rather than from Washington.

Yes, that's a snafu caused by routine Navy lip-buttoning. Although they're reluctant to say anything too early to avoid the embarrassment of being proved wrong later, they could have told the public a little more a lot earlier.

The Navy is reportedly planning to investigate charges against the commander or crew. But those aboard the sub claim to have conducted the required periscope sweeps before launching the emergency surfacing, and these sweeps are shown on video monitors, so a number of people would have seen them.

During some aspect of the periscope sweep, they'd have been looking toward shore, which could have masked the Japanese vessel. The fact that a number of people could see the monitors doesn't mean much, because it's not like you or me watching TV. Being able to understand what's going on in the periscope image requires great skill. It's often videotaped, although not this time, so they won't have that evidence to settle the matter — not that anything should be read into the fact that it wasn't recorded. But the Navy can't absolve the commanding officer simply because of his assertion that he didn't see anything. Because he hit something; it was there.

Why would the civilians have been sitting at the controls?

Like the other services, the Navy routinely takes batches of so-called "opinion leaders" on tours of their operations, to show off their various platforms. And an emergency blow is a neat time to be aboard a sub. Saying they were at the controls may be something of a misnomer, since there's no control over the vessel once it's surfacing. Its path is preordained. And, of course, there are officers on watch standing right behind the civilians, ready to take over in case anything goes wrong. But the issue here wasn't control over the vessel, it was the decision to surface at that particular time and place. And the civilians had nothing to do with that.

Will these reports have any further impact on the political fallout from the accident?

When you've killed nine people in an accident, it's hard to see how much worse things could get. Of course, having civilians in these seats makes the incident look worse, but it's unlikely to deepen the damage. It's a tragic accident, but it's unlikely to significantly affect the U.S.-Japan defense relationship.