The Cable

U.S. Navy Pauses After Losing Two Guided Missile Destroyers in Pacific

After several accidents and collisions this year, the Navy is trying to figure out what is going on.

CHANGI NAVAL BASE, SINGAPORE:  In this released U.S. Navy handout, damage to the portside is visible as the Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) steers towards Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore, following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21. Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms. Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding. The incident will be investigated. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
CHANGI NAVAL BASE, SINGAPORE: In this released U.S. Navy handout, damage to the portside is visible as the Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) steers towards Changi Naval Base, Republic of Singapore, following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21. Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms. Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding. The incident will be investigated. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The U.S. Navy’s top officer on Monday ordered the entire service on an “operational pause” in the wake of the second deadly accident in the Pacific in two months, and the third incident involving ships based at the U.S. Yokosuka naval base in Japan this year.

Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in a video statement that Sunday’s collision of the USS John S. McCain and a 600-ft. oil tanker near Singapore was the final straw in “a series of incidents in the Pacific theater” that includes the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and another container ship near Japan. Seven sailors died in that collision.

The McCain limped back to port in Singapore Monday, but ten sailors remain missing in addition to five others who were injured.

“This trend demands more forceful action,” Richardson said. “As such I have directed an operational pause be taken in all of our fleets around the world,” in order to conduct “a more comprehensive review to ensure that we get at the contributing factors, the root causes of these incidents.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis backed the move, telling reporters traveling with him in the Middle East on Monday that the review will look into related incidents at sea.

“He is going to look at all factors, not just immediate ones which will fall rightly under the fleet commander’s investigation of what happened to his ship,” Mattis said. “This is a broader look into what’s happening.”

The McCain accident is a major blow for the Navy, not only in the presumed loss of life, but for the thinning of the fleet in the Pacific at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea.

Given the extent of the damage from the collisions, the McCain and the Fitzgerald will both likely be out of service for months. Last week, the Navy announced that it relieved the Fitzgerald’s commander and two other senior leaders of their duties in the wake of the accident.

The loss of the two ships comes after years of squeezed defense spending that commanders say has limited training and truncated maintenance.

“This a Navy that has not had the operational focus that having a serious opponent provided it,” said Bryan McGrath, a defense consultant and former commanding officer of a guided missile destroyer.

“The readiness is fraying as a result of uneven resource streams, which means that maintenance gets deferred,” he said.

The inability in Congress to pass defense budgets in a timely fashion means that often “basic training is truncated,” McGrath added. “It’s worth looking into whether the operational requirements are impacting the Navy’s ability to do the kind of basic blocking and tackling of training for maneuver and navigation.”

The U.S. 7th Fleet relies on destroyers as critical defenses against North Korean missile launches. Both guided missile destroyers are equipped with the Aegis radar and missile defense system, which is capable of knocking North Korean missiles out of the air. The Navy has about 36 similar destroyers based around the Pacific region, but both ships are based at Yokosuka, Japan close to the Korean coast.

Foreign Policy recently mapped U.S. missile defense systems and naval bases surrounding the Korean peninsula, which operate as the first line of defense against any offensive missile launches from the regime in Pyongyang.

The McCain collision occurred at 6:24 a.m. local time when it collided with the 600-foot Alnic MC oil tanker near the Straits of Malacca. The Navy said on Monday that the McCain sustained “significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms.”

Other recent incidents that have led to the operations pause include a May 9 incident when the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel and a Jan. 31 episode where and the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground near its homeport of Yokosuka.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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