It’s been quite a while now since two collisions in the western Pacific involving US Navy vessels took the lives of a total of 17 sailors, injuring many others and significantly damaging their ships. The investigations being conducted by the military are wrapping up and charges have been filed against a number of senior personnel, including some which caught me totally by surprise. The Associated Press reports that a total of five officers, including the commanding officers of both the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, are being charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of the sailors. (Hat tip, Daily Beast)

The Navy said it is filing at least three charges against four officers of the Fitzgerald, including the commanding officer, who was Cmdr. Bryce Benson at the time. Benson suffered a head injury in the collision and was airlifted to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Yokosuka, Japan. A Navy investigation found that Benson left the ship’s bridge before the collision. Also facing charges are two lieutenants and one lieutenant junior grade, whose names were not disclosed. The Navy said all four face criminal charges, including negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and endangering a ship.

Fewer officers from the McCain are being charged. The Navy said the ship’s commander at the time, Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, is being charged with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and endangering a ship. A chief petty officer, whose name was not disclosed, faces a charge of dereliction of duty.

While not entirely unknown in naval history, this is still an unusual move, perhaps signaling an urgent need for the top brass in the Navy to show precisely how seriously they’re taking these incidents. But is homicide of any sort (even negligent) an appropriate charge here? Being on a warship at sea is dangerous business, even during peacetime, and in a worst case scenario sailors can and do occasionally lose their lives.

The Navy has always held commanders responsible when something goes disastrously wrong, so the bringing of some charges, as well as removal from command and other disciplinary measures, was certainly to be expected. During my final WESTPAC tour on an aircraft carrier back in the day, we had a collision in the Indian Ocean with a small oil tanker out of Bangladesh which thankfully didn’t see anyone killed, but caused serious damage to our carrier (luckily above the water line) and actually sank the oiler. It was a freak accident which almost certainly couldn’t have been avoided, but our Captain lost his command over it anyway. He faced additional penalties and wound up leaving the service.

But in that case, along with most others I’m familiar with, there was an understanding that these are accidents. We still don’t know all of the details as to exactly what happened on the McCain and the Fitzgerald last summer, but one would expect that the level of negligence would have to be awfully high – one might say criminal in nature – before they would file homicide charges against the senior officers.

Of course, the Navy is making it clear that the presumption of innocence still applies. The officers (along with one Chief Petty Officer from the McCain) will face a preliminary hearing and then go to court-martial later this year if the findings warrant such action. We should learn more when all the evidence is presented.