The Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy will have a new commander in less than three days since a maritime collision in which 10 sailors went missing. Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin will be relieved of duty after serving as commander of the fleet since 2015. His replacement, Admiral Scott H. Swift, is already briefing reporters on the rescue effort.
Swift told reporters that it is “premature to say how many or what the status of the recovery of those bodies is.”
One body was recovered by the Malaysian Navy but identification has yet to be made. Other sailors were found in the berth compartments of the U.S.S. John McCain, the destroyer that collided with a Liberian-registered tanker. The tanker is approximately three times the size of the McCain.
Removing a fleet commander of his duty is a rare decision, but four collisions and a dozen deaths within the last year have compelled the Navy to enact rare measures. Aside from Aucoin’s removal, the entire United States Navy is ceasing operations of its 277 ships worldwide. The idea is to reinforce training, teamwork and “other fundamentals.” The Navy is also investigating the cause of the accidents.
The collisions took place in the highly trafficked Singapore and Malacca Straits. Initial reports suggested that investigators were attempting to determine if the ships collided because of cyber attacks, crew negligence or equipment failure. Admiral Swift rejected claims of cyber attacks or steering malfunctions. However a thorough review of operations Navy-wide seems to suggest that other issues, either training or operating procedures, are being examined.
The pause in operations will allow Navy officials to review training, staffing and communications protocols. James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral, told the New York Times that a pause to run drills and “recuperate from the tempo of operations” is a logical decision.
The Seventh Fleet is based out of Yokosuka, Japan. Sailors from the fleet operate their vessels in the Malacca Straits, a route that sees 80,000 vessels a year pass through. The waters are currently in dispute, with both Malaysia and Singapore laying claim to certain regions of the strait. Though the dispute is peaceful, its existence is causing some confusion in the rescue efforts. Both countries claim to be taking the lead in search and rescue operations.