A court in Bergen has convicted a young naval officer for dereliction of duty, more than four years after the frigate he was navigating collided with a tanker and later sank. He was punished with a six-month suspended sentence, though, meaning he won’t serve time in jail and can continue serving in the Norwegian Navy, also on frigates.
The frigate Helge Ingstad was relatively new and one of only five in Norway’s fleet, making it a huge and expensive loss not only for Norwegian defense but also NATO’s. It was returning to home port in Bergen after NATO exercises in November 2018, when its now-33-year-old duty officer failed to notice that a fully laden tanker leaving a nearby oil terminal was rapidly approaching on its starboard side. Then he failed to react quickly enough to radio warnings to turn, and the tanker, unable to stop, rammed into the frigate on its starboard side.
No one was killed and the frigate was evacuated but it later sank and ultimately had to be scrapped. Parliament later rejected a proposal from the Conservatives-led government at the time to approve funding for a replacement frigate, leaving the Navy with a 20 percent reduction in fleet capacity not long before Russia invaded Ukraine and is now viewed as a major threat in the seas off Norway’s vast coastline.
After the Navy defended and even praised the frigate’s crew after the collision, state prosecutors found it important to establish punitive responsibility in the case. “We are very satisfied with the verdict,” lead prosecutor Benedikte Høgseth told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday. “The court has agreed with us on the central points.” The state had asked for a suspended sentence of at least 120 days, but even though that was cut in half, prosecutors won’t appeal it, claiming the legal precedent now set is more important.
The court found that the defendant had failed to pay enough attention to his radar screen showing maritime activity in the area, that he hadn’t responded to warning calls sent out over VHF marine radio, that he changed course without being sure of what he should avoid, and that neither the tanker’s crew, its pilot on board nor others involved in the collision acted in any extraordinary manner that could have excused the duty officer.
It remained unclear whether the duty officer will appeal. “He is disappointed … and still thinks it’s not right to blame him in a punitive context alone for the accident,” said he defense attorney Christian Lundin. “He is taking this verdict very hard.” He has not yet been publicly identified in accordance with press practice in Norway.
The young officer had taken over as duty chief on the bridge after an earlier navigator and the frigate’s captain had retired for the night. Lundin noted that one of the lay judges in the case dissented on the grounds the Navy itself was to blame for leaving a relatively inexperienced officer in charge of the frigate. “He should never have been on the bridge with the (lack of) experience he had,” claimed Lundin. “He did as well as he could.”
Others including fellow officers and their professional organization have complained that the defendant has been made the “scapegoat” or “fall guy” in the case. The head of the Norwegian officers’ association, Torbjørn Bongo, was disappointed with the court verdict on Monday. “We don’t think the court has taken into consideration all the reasons for this accident,” Bongo told NRK. He also thinks the duty officer was put into a role for which he was unprepared: “We think he should have been acquitted. He can’t be held responsible alone.”
The current head of the Norwegian Navy, Rune Andersen, has acknowledged mistakes made in the Navy’s systems in the frigate case and repeated on Monday that “I don’t want to tone down the Navy’s responsibility” for them. He also stressed that the officer now sentenced has had “good support” from colleagues and has been allowed to continue serving on one of the Navy’s four remaining frigates.
“He will be able to continue serving regardless of this verdict,” Andersen said, still claiming that “it’s been important for the Navy to take care of everyone involved” in the frigate collision. At a time when Norwegian defense is more important than ever, but also inadequate because of chronic underfunding since the Cold War ended, the Navy along with most other branches of the armed forces need all the help they can get.
“This has been one of Norway’s perhaps most-investigated accidents,” he told NRK. “The things that have come forth are important for us to address,” he added, so that such an accident won’t happen again.