U.S. Navy vessels have had four accidents in the western Pacific this year. U.S. Navy officials are rightly concerned. While the investigation into the latest incident continues, the U.S. Navy last week ordered a 24-hour operational pause for all its ships to review procedures and assess capabilities and practices. It has also commenced a comprehensive stock-taking to uncover “root causes” of the incidents and ensure that it is ready for all the challenges that it will face in the Pacific theater. Nothing is more important to Japan.
On Aug. 21, the guided-missile destroyer USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca just before dawn as it was proceeding into the port of Singapore after a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. The collision killed 10 U.S. sailors and injured five others. A preliminary review has revealed that the McCain suffered a steering failure as it entered the strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways.
The accident on the McCain followed by two months an accident in which the USS Fitzgerald, another guided-missile destroyer, collided with a container ship off Japan’s coast on June 17, killing seven U.S. sailors. That investigation is ongoing but the ship’s commanding officer, executive officer and senior noncommissioned officers have already been removed from their duties.
In May, the USS Lake Champlain, a 190-meter Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser operating with the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, was hit by a small South Korean fishing boat in international waters near the Korean Peninsula. Fortunately, there were no injuries in that incident. Another guided-missile cruiser, the USS Antietam, ran aground in January while trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay. There were no injuries then either, but the ship did spill 4,164 liters of oil into the bay.
U.S. officials are understandably concerned about the spate of accidents. In addition to the 24-hour pause, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, has been relieved “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.”
More importantly, the U.S. Navy will conduct a “comprehensive review to … get at the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents.” This review will be led by the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, and “will examine the process by which we train and certify our forces that are forward-deployed in Japan, to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make them ready for operations and war fighting.” Among the factors to be examined are “operational tempo, trends in personnel, materiel, maintenance and equipment,” as well as training and certification of surface warfare personnel.
There has been speculation that the accidents may have been the result of hacking. Senior officials say there is no evidence of such attacks but add that all options are being investigated. The McCain should have been under manual control when it had its incident, which would suggest that a cyberattack was not responsible. Other analysts wonder if the “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal that has engulfed the U.S. Navy has contributed to these problems.
Whatever the verdict on former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” its focus on Asia-Pacific security challenges and the corresponding need to reallocate U.S. forces is beyond dispute. The United States — and its allies and partners — are currently focused on North Korea, China’s attempt to rewrite the territorial and legal status quo, and the terrorist threat in the Philippines (and elsewhere in the region). They all demand a sustained force presence and accelerated operational tempo. This is occurring while the U.S. fights two wars in the Middle East and conducts special operations programs elsewhere in the region. This is stretching even U.S. capabilities — the most formidable in the world — to its limit. It is fair to ask if U.S. personnel are getting sufficient time to rest and retrain.
These incidents have special significance for Japan, and not only because they involve ships and personnel homeported here. The Seventh Fleet is the largest fleet in the U.S. Navy, with 60-70 ships, 200-300 aircraft and approximately 40,000 sailors and marines. It is vital to the security of Japan, protecting sea lanes that are the nation’s lifelines and contributing to the deterrence system that promotes regional stability. The McCain and the Fitzgerald are critical pieces of the multilayer missile defense architecture that helps shield Japan.
The U.S. Navy’s problems may raise the question for more alliance burden-sharing on the part of Japan. The strain on the U.S. forces will indeed be diminished as Japan does more to defend its homeland and increase its contribution to regional maritime domain awareness and capacity building. But first, the U.S. must get to the bottom of what lies behind the recent series of accidents involving its navy and address whatever problems exposed in the probe.