John Cordle knows all too well the dangers of sleep deficit.
In 2001, the former Navy captain was commanding officer of the USS Oscar Austin, a 300-crew, 505-foot, 10,000-ton destroyer with 100,000-horsepower engines, armed with missiles, torpedoes and helicopters. They were off the coast of Norfolk when Cordle ordered a maneuver that generated a huge wave, flipping a much smaller inflatable boat next to the destroyer. Six sailors were thrown overboard. One of them was seriously injured when a propeller hit him between his legs.
“I put six sailors at risk and injured one, due to a poor decision driven by my own fatigue,” Cordle said in an interview. of the incident that still torments him. His exhaustion was so bad that it amounted to being “legally drunk,” he added, “as far as my ability to make decisions is concerned.”
Cordle, now a Department of Defense civilian employee in Norfolk with a doctorate in engineering management, studies sleep deprivation. On another occasion, he lost “situational awareness of where he was” when his boat was leading others through a strait. He had to stop “to get my bearings,” which caused the other boats to stop and led to “a good beating from my boss.”
“Most of the situations where I was close to command… were because I was tired,” Cordle said. “I made bad decisions driven by fatigue.”
The Government Accountability Office’s October audit follows one conducted in May 2021 that made eight recommendations to address sailor fatigue. Only four had been fully implemented when the October document was published. Three were partially implemented, but the one that was not implemented at all seems the most basic and all-encompassing: “Take steps to address factors causing sailor fatigue and inadequate sleep.” GAO focused on surface ships, which do not include submarines.
Navy officials issued a fatigue management policy in 2017 after four ship accidents, including two collisions in which fatigue was a factor and 17 died. However, four years later, the GAO found troubling results. The October report also found that the Navy:
● “implemented its policy inconsistently and 14 percent of officers got enough sleep”
● routinely assigned ships fewer crew members, on average 15 percent fewer, than “necessary to operate them safely”
● “used inaccurate baselines to estimate future staffing needs that could perpetuate future crew shortages.”
The GAO cited a fiscal year 2022 Navy survey that found that “workload and uncomfortable mattresses, respectively, are the two leading factors causing inadequate sleep and fatigue.” Navy data also shows, according to the GAO, that prolonged sleep deprivation produces “levels of impairment comparable to intoxication.”
Commander. Arlo Abrahamson, a spokesman for the service, said the Navy welcomed the GAO report, telling The Washington Post that “we are actively addressing challenges related to sailor fatigue through a variety of measures ranging from forced crewing to technological applications that help manage crew rest and optimize human performance.”
He said “deploying ships are typically over 90 percent crewed” and the service is moving toward the 100 percent goal by adding an average of 14 more sailors per ship since summer 2017.
Abrahamson’s response was more positive than the Navy’s written response included in the GAO report.
“Unfortunately,” wrote Rear Adm. Joseph F. Cahill, commander of Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, despite all efforts, “the amount of sleep our Sailors get at sea has not increased significantly over the past five years.” ”. He cited “barriers to future improvements,” including a shortage of sailors, longer sea deployments, too little funding for fatigue-tracking technology and uncomfortable mattresses.
Cahill identified Cordle, who was interviewed by the GAO, as the Navy’s action officer on this issue.
In interviews with The Post, Cordle, speaking for himself and not the Navy, identified another common problem in bureaucracies and other organizations: cultural change. Despite the Navy’s change in fatigue policies, Cordle estimates that the Navy is about six years into a decade-long cultural change process that would lead to real results.
On that point, the GAO said the Navy has “expressed its desire to fully man all required positions on its ships, but has not committed this intention to policy.” A change of action takes even longer.
Still, Cordle sees progress. He called the Navy’s instructions allowing napping “a sea change.” Ten years ago, he recalled, sailors talked about staying awake for 36 hours as “almost like a badge of bravery… a source of pride.”
Meanwhile, the Navy is developing a 15-year plan “to reverse persistent personnel shortages and fully crew the fleet,” the GAO reported. “However, until the Navy takes steps to fill required positions with qualified sailors, personnel shortages will likely remain a major factor causing inadequate sleep and sailor fatigue.”