US navy sacks 7th Fleet commander after collisions in Asia

Move after fleet’s fourth incident this year, as search for USS John S McCain crew continues

The US navy on Wednesday said it had removed its 7th Fleet commander, vice-admiral Joseph Aucoin, after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for some of the 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Vice-admiral Aucoin's removal came after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the US Pacific Fleet this year.

"Admiral Scott Swift, commander of US Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of 7th Fleet, Vice-admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command," the US navy said in a press release.

Admiral Swift, who travelled to Japan to relieve Vice-admiral Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear-admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful US force.


Vice-admiral Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Rear-admiral Sawyer, a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Vice-admiral Aucoin came up through the navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

"I support Admiral Swift's decision to bring in new leadership. The new 7th Fleet commander must help move his team forward, focusing efforts on safe and effective operations," US navy chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, said in a statement.

The 7th Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the US navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has about 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million sq km from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Tense time

The accident involving the USS John S McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the US navy in Asia.

This month, the John S McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest "freedom of navigation" operation to counter what the United States sees as China's efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the US navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programmes.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese maritime self-defence force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to the media.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia is looking for the 10 US sailors missing since Monday's collision.

On Tuesday, US navy and marine divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore's Changi naval base. The navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The US navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photographs posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a US navy helicopter.

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in US navy operations.