U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift said divers had discovered some remains aboard the USS John S. McCain after it had collided with a petroleum tanker near Singapore on Monday.
Admiral Swift told reporters at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on Tuesday that it was premature to say how many bodies had been found. He confirmed that the Malaysian navy had discovered one body which was being transferred to Singapore for identification.
Earlier, the U.S. Navy directed its worldwide fleet to take stock of operations and pinpoint gaps after the second collision involving an American naval vessel in Asia in recent months left 10 sailors missing.
The Navy ordered fleet commanders to execute a one- to two-day “operational pause” within the next week to look at the “fundamentals” of naval practices, Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, said Monday. The pause is a time to “stand down,” but it’s up to fleet commanders to determine what the impact on their operations will look like, Richardson said.
Ten sailors were reported missing and five were injured following Monday’s collision. Richardson called the crash “an extremely serious incident,” saying he was “devastated and really just heartbroken.” It’s the second such incident within three months — both being “very similar” — and the latest in a “series of incidents” in the Pacific Fleet, he said.
“That gives great cause for concern that there’s something out there that we’re not getting at,” Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon. “My hope is that we will learn, continue to improve in the short term — validating that we are sound on the fundamentals, and, if not, then we’ll take action to correct that and then look at broader, more systemic issues.”
U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris said the halt was important, but wouldn’t have an averse effect on operations.
“This is an opportunity for ship commanding officers to take a look at his or her procedures and look at the readiness of their crews to do the difficult job of sailing at sea,” Admiral Harris said at the Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. “As for the operational pause and the effect on our ability to defend our nation and our allies, it will not have that effect.”
Search-and-rescue efforts are under way after the McCain collided with the Alnic MC. The U.S. Seventh Fleet said on its website that the vessel had significant damage to its hull, resulting in flooding to compartments including berthing, machinery and communications rooms. Following the crash, the ship sailed under its own power to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, the Seventh Fleet said on Twitter.
There’s no indication yet that the crash was intentional on either side, but the Navy continues to look into that, Richardson added.
CNN reported on Tuesday that the U.S. ship suffered a steering malfunction that led to the crash. It was unclear why the crew couldn’t utilize the vessel’s backup steering systems to maintain control, CNN said, citing an unidentified U.S. navy official.
The collision comes shortly after the top three commanders of the USS Fitzgerald — a Navy destroyer that ran into a cargo ship near Yokosuka, Japan, in June — were removed from their positions following an investigation that found flawed teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the accident. Seven sailors drowned in that accident.
Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney, the top Democrat on the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, said Congress needs to undertake “rigorous oversight” and review the “rising trend lines of accidents.”
“Our sailors are asked to operate every day in contested waters vital to the interests of the United States,” Courtney said in a statement. “We need to make sure that they have the tools, training, and support they need to do their jobs successfully and safely.”
Besides the operational pause, over a few months the Navy will complete a longer-term, comprehensive review of U.S. naval forces in Japan, including looking at training and certifying readiness. The review also will consider the Navy’s process “for developing surface warfare community, ship-drivers” and whether that could be improved, Richardson said. Private industry experts, such as operating systems manufacturers, could help in that, he added.
“Thoughts & prayers are w/ our @USNavy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway,” President Donald Trump said on Twitter.
There was no report of oil pollution, and traffic in the Singapore Strait was unaffected, the Singapore government press center said in a statement. The collision took place in waters claimed by Malaysia and Singapore, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency director Zulkifili Abu Bakar told reporters.
China hopes the missing sailors are safe, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing in Beijing. She also expressed concern for “dangers to freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and the related area, and hoped it would be “dealt with appropriately.”
The USS John S. McCain is named after the father and grandfather of Republican Senator John McCain. In a tweet, the Arizona lawmaker said he and his wife were praying for the sailors and appreciated the efforts of search-and-rescue crews.
The Malacca and Singapore straits are key choke points of the oil trade in Asia. About 40 percent of oil shipped by water passes through the area, as well as about a quarter of the world’s traded goods, according to the Marine Department of Malaysia.
The Alnic MC was chartered on Aug. 17 to ship a cargo of petroleum from Southeast Asia to the Far East, according to ship-broker data compiled by Bloomberg. It was supposed to load its cargo on Aug. 25.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have come under fire for stretching resources to keep up with demand for deployments.
Between 1998 and 2015, the Navy shrank by 20 percent, to 271 ships, while the number of vessels deployed overseas remained at about 100 ships, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, wrote in a 2015 article for The National Interest. Clark concluded that each ship has to work 20 percent more to meet demand.
“The navy is maxing out limited ships and crews to do an expanding array of jobs to keep up with security commitments here and elsewhere,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the maritime security program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Recent problems faced by USN such as manpower shortages can mean the individual crew on board can spend a higher average number of days out at sea.”