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2017 Aug 22

Pentagon orders temporary halt to US navy operations after second collision

The Pentagon has ordered a temporary halt to US navy operations around the world and a full safety review, after the second serious collision in two months involving its ships in the Pacific.

Ten American sailors are missing and five injured after the guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore early on Monday morning local time. Seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship hit each other in waters off Japan, in an accident the US navy has conceded was caused by poor leadership and seamanship by senior officers.

“This is the second collision in three months and is the last in a series of incidents in the Pacific theater,” the commander of naval operations, Adm John Richardson, said in a statement. “This trend demands more forceful action.”

Richardson ordered an “operational pause” in fleet operations that is expected to take one day for urgent safety checks while a more comprehensive review gets under way. It is believed fleet commanders have discretion over when to take the one-day pause, according to their own operational needs, but it should be in the next two weeks.

“I want our fleet commanders to get together with their leaders and their commanders to ensure we’re taking all appropriate and immediate actions to ensure safe and effective operations around the world,” Richardson added. The review, he added would assess “the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents”.

The review comes a tense time in the Pacific, amid an exchange of heated threats between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes. China has been reinforcing its military presence in the South China Sea.

On Monday, Singaporean, Malaysian and US search and rescue teams consisting of patrol ships, helicopters and tugboats were searching the area for the missing crew from the McCain after a collision at about 5.30am local time with the Liberian-flagged Alnic MC east of the straits of Malacca and Singapore.

“Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms,” a statement from the US Pacific Fleet said. “Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding.”

The head of the Malaysian navy posted a photo of the US ship with damage to its hull.

“There are currently 10 sailors missing and five injured,” the navy statement said.

It said four of the injured had been taken by a Singapore navy helicopter to a hospital in Singapore for “non-life threatening injuries” and the fifth injured sailor did not require further medical attention.

“Search and rescue efforts” were under way in coordination with local authorities after the incident at 5.24am local time on Monday.

The US warship had returned “under its own power” to Singapore’s Changi naval base, the navy statement said, where it had been due for a routine port visit.

The statement gave no other details about the missing crew. The incident would be investigated, it said.

The US navy relieved the USS Fitzgerald’s captain of his command and other sailors were punished after the navy found poor seamanship and flaws in keeping watch contributed to the June collision. An investigation into how and why the Fitzgerald collided with the other ship was not finished, but enough details were known to take those actions, the navy said.

“Collisions like these are extremely rare and two in one summer, both from seventh fleet based in Japan, is stunning,” said David Larter, a US navy veteran and naval warfare writer.

The McCain collision was the fourth accident the Pacific fleet has had this year. In January, the cruiser Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, and in May, another cruiser, Lake Champlain, crashed into a Korean fishing boat in the Sea of Japan.

“The number of breakdowns that have to occur for something like this to happen make them a rare occurrence,” Larter said. “Sailors monitor radars round the clock, they have multiple sailors standing watch on the bridge which also has a radar, and they have at least one lookout posted at the back end of the ship to watch for exactly these kinds of situations.”

The ship, which has seen service in the 2003 Iraq war, the Korean peninsula and Japan, is named after the father and grandfather of the Arizona senator and former naval pilot John McCain, who were both US navy admirals. Senator McCain tweeted that he was praying for the crew.

Trump replied “that’s too bad” in response to shouted questions about the damaged ship from reporters as he returned to the White House after a working holiday at his golf resort in New Jersey, according to pool reports. Trump later tweeted that “thoughts & prayers” were with the sailors aboard McCain.

The Fitzgerald and McCain are both ballistic missile defence (BMD) capable. These ships are seen as an increasingly vital defence against ballistic missile launches from North Korea. Unusually bellicose rhetoric from the US president and his North Korean counterpart this month have stoked fears of a strike.

The Alnic MC is an oil tanker that sails under the Liberian flag. It is 182 metres (600ft) long and has a deadweight tonnage of 50,760. None of its crew were hurt in the incident.

Source: www.theguardian.com; julian Borger

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