Navy makes changes after series of deadly crashes

The outgoing head of the U.S. Navy's surface forces outlined changes Monday to how American warships should operate at sea following a series of deadly crashes, according to a memo obtained by Fox News.

Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, rumored to be retiring early after two collisions at sea resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors, explained the changes in a memo to the fleet.

For instance, top Navy officials want to standardize the way officers and sailors stand watch to produce more natural sleep cycles, giving them more rest. Two U.S. defense officials told Fox, the Navy will do away with five-hour watches because they are too long and officials fear sailors “lose concentration” after three hours.

The current schedule format, used on most warships at sea, varies the time of day that officers and sailors stand watch.

Rowden's memo also directed all Navy warships to keep their Automatic Identification System on at all times in busy sea lanes.

“AIS shall be transmitted while transiting any traffic separation scheme and/or any high density traffic area,” the memo said.

While the AIS activation would alert potential adversaries about the presence of a U.S. warship, the system is designed primarily to alert merchant ships on autopilot and enable them to take evasive action if necessary. Both U.S. Navy warship collisions during the summer involved collisions with large merchant ships.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. John Perkins told Fox News the memo "gives flexibility for the operational commanders to manage AIS transmission in situations where mission-specific operational security, emission control or force protection conditions may preclude AIS transmission."

The memo also outlined new "common business rules" in order to standardize the process aboard a warship’s bridge and engineering departments.

All radar contacts will also be tracked by hand using "maneuvering boards," a standard for calculating distance away from another ship based on relative motion, a stable of shipboard life for decades aboard Navy ships.

Rowden’s expected early retirement made him one of several admirals to expedite leaving their posts following the collisions.

The USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker collided in Southeast Asia last month, leaving 10 U.S. sailors dead and five injured. And seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided in waters off Japan.

On Tuesday, top Navy leaders and lawmakers condemned the accidents as preventable.

"It is simply unacceptable for U.S. Navy ships to run aground or collide with other ships — and to have four such incidents in the span of seven months is truly alarming," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The USS John S. McCain is named after McCain's father and grandfather.

Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said commanders are ultimately responsible for ensuring their forces are combat ready and operating safely and effectively.

"I am accountable for the safe and effective operations of our Navy, and we will fix this," Adm. Richardson said. "I own this problem."

Richardson blamed what he called "a distorted perception of operational security" for keeping the AIS turned off.

"One of the immediate actions following these incidences particularly in heavily trafficked areas, we are just going to turn it on," Richardson said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. asked Adm. Richardson if it was mistake to close down a six-month school in 2003 to train freshly minted officers before they reported aboard their ships.

"We thought we could achieve the aim and train surface warfare officers -- junior-officers -- with a computer-based approach combined with on the job training at sea and we found that was woefully inadequate," the admiral said.

John H. Pendleton of the Government Accountability Office testified that sailors are working 100 hour weeks to keep up with the high operational tempo.

"I think I know what 100 hours a week does to people over time," McCain said. "When people are working 100 hours a week they are going to make mistakes."

Throughout the hearing senators from both sides of the aisle linked the degradation of the fleet to the rise in number of accidents.

"We have a problem," Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews