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US Navy collisions: Seventh Fleet commander removed from post

The US Navy has removed the commander of its Seventh Fleet after a series of collisions involving American warships in Asian waters, the latest of which resulted in 10 sailors being reported missing.

world Updated: Aug 23, 2017 14:52 IST
Reuters
Reuters
Washington/Tokyo
US Navy Seventh Fleet,US Navy collisions,Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin
File photo from June 2017 shows Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the US 7th Fleet, at a news conference in front of the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald. Aucoin was relieved of duty following a deadly collision between a destroyer and a merchant vessel, the latest in a spate of similar accidents. (AFP)

The US Navy on Wednesday said it had removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Aucoin’s removal comes days after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the US Pacific Fleet this year.

“Admiral Scott Swift, commander of US Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the US Navy said in a press release.

Swift, who travelled to Japan to relieve Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful US force.

Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Sawyer, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet and a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Aucoin came up through the navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the US Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million sq km from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Updated map locating the area where USS John S. McCain destroyer collided with a merchant vessel off Singapore Monday. - AFP / AFP (AFP)

Tense times

The accident involving the USS John S McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the US Navy in Asia.

This month, the John S McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the US Navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programmes.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to the media.

The damaged port aft hull of the USS John S McCain is visible while docked at Singapore's Changi naval base on Aug. 22, 2017. The focus of the search for US sailors missing after the collision between the USS John S McCain and an oil tanker in Southeast Asian waters has shifted to the damaged destroyer's flooded compartments. (AP)

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia is looking for the 10 US sailors missing since Monday’s collision.

On Tuesday, US Navy and Marine Divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi naval base. The navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The US Navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian Navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photos posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian Navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a US Navy helicopter.

Royal Malaysian Navy personnel carry a body onto a US Navy helicopter from USS America during a search and rescue operation for survivors of the USS John S. McCain ship collision in Malaysian waters on August 23, 2017. (Reuters)

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in US Navy operations.

The John S McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven US sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

First Published: Aug 23, 2017 14:51 IST