UPDATED: The Norwegian Navy faces embarrassment once again, after state prosecutors blamed the collision and sinking of the frigate Helge Ingstad in 2018 on an inexperienced young man who’d been left in charge on the bridge. They want the local court in Bergen to sentence him to 120 days in jail, albeit suspended, while his defense attorney later blamed those who put him in charge.
Prosecutor Magne Kvamme Sylta claimed in court that it is “correct” to enforce personal punitive responsibility for the loss of one of Norway’s five frigates. The duty chief aboard Helge Ingstad, sailing back to Bergen after major NATO exercises in the fall of 2018, failed to follow his radar screen and see that a large tanker was approaching the frigate on its starboard side. The fully-laden tanker, which couldn’t stop, and the frigate thus collided in the dark early morning hours, and the frigate later sank after all on board were evacuated.
The prosecutors’ demand for a 120-day suspended jail term plus two years on probation was made as a two-month court case into the collision was wrapping up this week. It comes just as Norway is once again hosting NATO exercises, involving most branches of the service and allies from nine countries that rely on the Norwegian Navy to patrol Arctic areas.
The now-33-year-old former duty officer has been charged with negligence but denies punitive responsibility for the collision. He’s also been charged under maritime law for not maintaining his obligations while on duty. Maritime authorities suspected human error shortly after the collision, while naval officers and Norway’s defense minister at the time shielded those on board the frigate and stressed how no one was hurt or killed. The former chief of the Navy was even later promoted to head Norway’s military intelligence agency.
Critics have maintained that the young duty officer shouldn’t bear the entire blame for the collision. One former naval officer responsible for ensuring navigators’ competence told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) recently that the duty officer “should never have been cleared” for his post that fateful night. Retired officer Cato Rasmussen said he’d never heard of a duty chief with such little experience being put in control of a frigate.
“This collision would never have occurred if a more experienced duty chief had been on the bridge that night,” Rasmussen told NRK. He holds higher-ranking officers responsible as well, and he was among those testifying at the current trial.
The young man’s defense attorney, Christian Lundin, also blamed the Navy itself for his client’s lack of experience. He’d been cleared for service after just eight months of training in the spring of 2018, four months before he should have been qualified under Norwegian and international law for a maritime certificate. “He followed (superiors’) urging that he be cleared,” Lundin argued in his closing remarks, “and that’s connected to his lack of reflexes that a more experienced officer would have.”
Rasmussen thinks the Norwegian Navy lacks enough qualified navigators and told NRK that he sounded alarms several times over inexperienced personnel being put in charge of navigating naval vessels. On the night of the frigate’s collision, two of those usually on duty on board the frigate were attending a course in Bergen as part of their own ongoing education. Rasmussen fears that created a need for putting new duty chiefs in charge earlier than they should be, in this case after only eight months in service.
The chief of the Norwegian Navy, Rune Andersen, has admitted that routines have been changed after the collision and that the Navy has been working on several areas that have needed improvement.