The cruiser Chancellorsville was struck by a BQM-74E drone similar to the one pictured at right during a November at-sea exercise. The impact caused about $30 million in damages. (Navy photos)
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A new report faults a control glitch and the drone’s operators for an unusual November mishap where the telemetry target crashed into the cruiser Chancellorsville during at-sea testing, sidelining the ship for months and causing millions in damages.
The controlling system’s two consoles were in conflict with each other during the southern California exercise, which caused the targeting system to lose control of the BQM-74E drone, according to the Navy investigation, and the fail-safe was not pulled in time.
But the range operators at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Point Mugu, California, are also to blame, according to the report, which was released June 26. The investigation found that the operators at the range failed to alert the ship to the “rogue drone” flying 500 mph until after it struck the ship’s port side, puncturing into computer central — the space directly below the combat information center, which was crowded for the exercise.
The range called out “rogue drone” 17 seconds after the drone slammed into the cruiser, a jarring impact that injured two sailors and caused an estimated $30 million in damages.
Drone operations at Point Mugu were suspended after the incident, and the Pacific Fleet bosses recommend in the March 28 report that the range stay closed until new safety procedures were adopted. The range opened in early May and has conducted about 15 flights since resuming operations.
But the investigation also exposed a rift between Adm. Harry Harris, the naval flight officer who heads PACFLT, and Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the surface Navy’s top officer, over whether the Chancellorsville and its then-commanding officer did enough to defend the ship.
Capt. William Hesser, who was in command of Chancellorsville at the time of the Class A mishap, should have done more to protect the ship and “failed to use the full range of tools available to him to protect the ship,” Harris wrote in his final letter closing the report.
Harris rested his case upon the finding that the ship’s close-in weapons system, a rapid-fire gun designed as a last resort, issued a “recommend fire” warning but that nobody acted on it, in part because they were in a training scenario. Additionally, the ship’s automatic self-defense doctrines were dialed back without the CO’s notice and failed to identify the drone as a threat.
“It was his duty to fully understand and execute the fundamental principle of protecting the ship,” Harris wrote. “He failed to do so.”
That judgment overruled the surface boss’s conclusions. Copeman argued the ship needed the range to call out “rogue drone” to alert the CIC watchstanders that the drone was out of control and a possible threat — not part of the training.
Copeman said that the range was so tightly controlled that the “rogue drone” call was necessary before Hesser could have made a decision to shoot down the drone.
“The CO of the [Chancellorsville] was placed in a position where he was not armed with the information he needed regarding the [targeting system] and the range limitations to terminate the drone,” Copeman said in his letter. “Without the range calling ‘rogue drone,’ he did not have sufficient battle space or time to take the proper steps to defend the ship.”
Copeman and 3rd Fleet boss Vice. Adm. Kenneth Floyd, a fighter pilot, both recommended that no punitive action be taken against Hesser, and Harris agreed. However, Harris directed administrative action be taken against the former CO.
Harris also ordered administrative actions against the on-watch tactical action officer, the anti-air warfare coordinator — who heard the CIWS operator call out the “recommend fire” but didn’t act — and the ship’s combat systems coordinator, all of whose names and ranks are redacted from the 53-page report.
Floyd directed that the ship’s CIC watchstanders all have their qualifications reviewed. He also directed that the lessons-learned from the Chancellorsville incident be integrated in schoolhouse training.
A close call
The drone strike decimated the ship’s computer central, which had a sailor and five contractors in the space at the time of the incident, according to the investigation.
The incident was the most serious involving a targeting drone since a target drone struck the frigate Antrim in 1983, killing a civilian.
The Chancellorsville strike punched through the cruiser’s port break and through the bulkhead into the space which had recently been outfitted with new equipment to support the fleet’s latest ballistic-missile defense system upgrade.
A former Chancellorsville sailor who spoke to Navy Times in December said that had the drone struck seven feet higher, it could have killed or wounded dozens of sailors in the CIC.
Harris, in the report, commended the crew for its bravery and damage control efforts in the investigation.
“The actions of the first responders, in particular, were instrumental in quickly limiting the spread of damage and likely saved lives,” Harris wrote.
One sailor, identified as Fire Controlman 2nd Class David Gentry by his hometown newspaper, the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Free Lance-Star — was burned in the incident but returned to the space to fight the fire.
An email to his mother from Hesser after the incident said that Gentry had “performed heroically.”
“He is an absolutely stellar sailor and an even more impressive person,” Hesser said, according to the paper.
The investigation showed that Hesser and the combat systems officer participated in the damage control efforts, arriving first to the port break where the drone entered the ship and putting CO2 on the fire there.
The drone struck the ship at 1:14 p.m. The ship set general quarters 10 minutes later and by 1:30, all fires were out. Hesser then ordered a muster of the ship’s crew and made sure all personnel were safe.
Lt. Rick Chernitzer, a spokesman for Naval Surface Forces Pacific, said the ship has completed all major repairs by late June.
Chernitzer said the administrative actions dictated by Harris have been carried out, but declined to specify which Chancellorsville watchstanders were disciplined or how, citing privacy regulations.
Point Mugu spokesman Shane Montgomery said the range had also carried out its administrative actions but also declined to comment on specifics.
Operations at the range and upgrades to the system are in place and the range is gradually increasing the complexity of the training exercises as it builds confidence in the system, Montgomery said.■