The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said some remains of navy sailors were found in a compartment of the USS John McCain on Tuesday, a day after the warship’s collision with an oil tanker in Southeast Asian waters left 10 sailors missing.
Adm. Scott Swift also said at a news conference in Singapore that Malaysian officials had found one body, which they were in the process of identifying, but it had yet to be identified and it was unknown whether it was a crew member.
Swift said navy divers were able to locate some remains in the sealed compartments during a search Tuesday, adding that it was “premature to say how many and what the status of recovery of those bodies is.”
“We will continue the search and rescue operations until the probability of discovering sailors is exhausted,” Swift said.
Swift would not say the location in the destroyer the bodies were found.
Earlier Tuesday, the navy announced a fleetwide probe and temporary halt to operations after the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-headquartered 7th Fleet’s second major collision in under three months.
The McCain, an Aegis-equipped destroyer home-ported in Yokosuka and the Alnic MC tanker collided early Monday as the destroyer approached Singapore for a routine port call. The collision ripped a gaping hole near the warship’s waterline, flooding compartments that included a crew sleeping area, the U.S. Navy said. Besides the 10 sailors reported missing, five others were injured in the crash.
The crash significantly damaging the warship’s hull and flooded nearby compartments, including a crew sleeping area and machinery and communications rooms. The McCain, however, was able to limp to port at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on Monday afternoon, making its way there on its own power.
U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said that he was asking his fleet commanders worldwide for a one- to two-day staggered “operational pause” to discuss actions to ensure safe and effective operations, adding that this could begin within a week.
Monday’s collision was the Pacific Fleet’s fourth major accident this year. Several other incidents have also prompted questions about U.S. military readiness and the training of its forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
“While each of these four incidents is unique, they cannot be viewed in isolation,” Swift said.
He said the Navy would carry out a probe “to find out if there is a common cause … and if so, how do we solve that.”
This latest incident followed the Aegis destroyer USS Fitzgerald’s June 17 collision with a Philippine-flagged freighter in the middle of the night off the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo.
Seven U.S. sailors were killed in that accident. Just last week the navy relieved the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, executive officer and senior enlisted sailor for mistakes that led to the deadly crash.
In May, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and a South Korean fishing vessel were involved in a collision. Another guided-missile cruiser, the USS Antietam, damaged its propellers in January while anchoring in Tokyo Bay.
Richardson suggested the spate of incidents involving the Pacific Fleet — including the Fitzgerald collision, which he called “very similar” to the McCain accident — had prompted him to also announce a more comprehensive review that would examine the training of U.S. forces deployed to Japan.
“What is the situation out in Japan with our forward-deployed … naval forces out there?” Richardson said, according to a transcript of a news briefing Monday. “How are they executing their business? I just want to understand that more deeply in terms of training, generating that readiness that we ask them to achieve, and then … certifying that readiness, making sure that it meets standards.”This review would also include looking at “operational tempo, trends in personnel, materiel, maintenance and equipment,” Richardson said in a separate video posted on Facebook.
There was no immediate explanation for the cause of the collision that involved the approximately 8,900-ton McCain and the Alnic, a 30,000-ton Liberian-flagged tanker used for transporting oil and chemicals.
But CNN, citing unidentified U.S. Navy officials, reported that early indications suggested the collision had been caused by a steering malfunction as the warship approached the Strait of Malacca.
Contacted by The Japan Times, a navy spokesman declined comment, saying that “the investigation will very thoroughly determine what happened.”
Singapore, a U.S. ally located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, is one of the busiest ports, and its naval base regularly receives American warships.
Richardson said that there were no indications thus far the collision was intentional or the result of cybersabotage, but added on Twitter later that the review “will consider all possibilities.”
The McCain accident comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, including on the Korean Peninsula and in the contested South China Sea, where China has built up a number of militarized outposts. The McCain itself had on Aug. 10 carried out a so-called freedom of navigation operation near one of the Chinese-held artificial islands in the strategic waterway.
But perhaps most importantly in the near-term, the damage to the McCain means the Pacific Fleet will be without two of its Aegis ballistic missile defense-equipped destroyers amid a showdown with nuclear-armed North Korea. Those systems have been touted as a possible counter to the North’s missiles.
The North has threatened U.S. allies with its ever-expanding missile arsenal and recently conducted two successful tests of a long-range missile that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the United States.
In one of the isolated nation’s most provocative announcements, the North earlier this month threatened to fire ballistic missiles over Japan and toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam after U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to unleash “fire and fury” if Pyongyang threatened the United States.
U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, who was visiting South Korea on Tuesday, said that the McCain’s absence and the operational pause triggered by the collision would not have an adverse effect on the American military’s ability to defend the U.S. and its allies, including Japan and South Korea.
“The U.S. Navy is large. We have a lot of capacity and we will bring that capacity forward” if needed, Harris said, stressing that the U.S. Aegis warships are “only a part” of the military’s layered ballistic missile defenses.
Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that the U.S. Navy may be facing “a drop off in skills and training … that has gotten worse over time.”
“Lack of money, overburdened forces deployed on extended patrols, growing maintenance issues — all contribute to decreasing readiness and reduced effectiveness,” Davis said.
He also disputed Harris’ claim that the loss of two Aegis warships would not put the U.S. in a bind amid its standoff with North Korea or in any potential row with China.
“That’s two less platforms able to defeat either a North Korean ballistic missile threat, were it to appear, or respond to a challenge from People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in a crisis,” Davis said. “The U.S. will of course, deploy additional vessels, but that will tend to overtax the fleet even more.
“The U.S. can’t keep on affording these sorts of accidents, and maintain effectiveness in the process,” he said.