TSC IntelBrief: U.S. Naval Accidents in the Pacific

INTELBRIEF

TSC IntelBrief: U.S. Naval Accidents in the Pacific

Bottom Line Up Front:

• The August 21 collision of the USS John S. McCain is the second such incident in two months involving a 7th Fleet Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

• It is highly remarkable that two destroyers of the same class, from the same home port and squadron, and with the same patrol missions, would have separate collisions in similar fashion within such a short period of time.

• The John S. McCain had recently conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation patrol near a Chinese-constructed island, prompting an angry response from Beijing.

• While there are no indications that the two incidents are anything other than accidents, the timing and specifics warrant a broad investigation into the possible causes.

 

As search and rescue operations continue, the U.S. Navy announced that divers had located the remains of some of the missing crew members of the USS John S. McCain who were feared lost after an August 21 collision with a large commercial tanker. The collision occurred in the crowded and strategically crucial Straits of Malacca, the narrow stretch of water that runs between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, serving as a major shipping channel linking the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The area is among the most important geopolitical, military, and economic spots on earth. It is also becoming a flashpoint between an increasingly assertive China, its numerous neighbors who fear Beijing’s aggressive expansion, and a U.S. Navy that is determined to maintain open sea lanes and freedom of navigation, despite Chinese territorial claims.

The collision of the John S. McCain, a 505-foot guided-missile destroyer, is the second such incident for a 7th Fleet Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in two months. On June 16, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a massive container ship off the coast of Japan; the collision, which occurred in clear and calm weather and relatively uncrowded shipping lanes, killed seven U.S. Navy sailors. An investigation of the collision is ongoing, but the Navy removed the ship’s captain, executive officer, and senior non-commissioned officer from their duties on August 18. While such discipline of senior commanders after an accident is normal, the incidents themselves are not. It is highly remarkable that two destroyers of the same class, from the same home port and squadron, and with the same patrol missions, would have separate collisions in similar fashion within such a short period of time. 

Accidents involving U.S. Navy ships are infrequent, but not exceedingly rare given the high number of hours the 277-ship fleet spends operating at sea every year. Yet, the McCain collision is the fourth significant incident for a Navy vessel from the U.S. Pacific Fleet within the last year. Earlier this year, two Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers were involved in costly accidents, with the USS Lake Champlain hitting a South Korean fishing vessel, and the USS Antietam running aground off of Japan. Each ship costs over a billion dollars and both were assigned to patrol the South China Sea at the time of the incidents. 

It is unclear if something is amiss with the navigation and steering systems of these vessels or if human error is to blame. Given the unlikelihood of two Arleigh Burke destroyers from the same squadron having similar accidents within two months, investigators will quickly look beyond the human error factor (which previous cases would suggest is the most likely cause) to see if there is something wrong with the design or maintenance of the two ships. In response to the two collisions, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, has ordered a rolling two-day operational pause for all vessels, to review training and operating procedures; he also ordered a review specifically looking at the 7th Fleet, given the unusual nature of the events. The Navy also announced on August 23 that it had taken the significant step of dismissing the commander of the 7th Fleet.

Both destroyers patrol the vital South China Sea, in which China has constructed artificial islands in contested waters. Beijing has laid claim to the 12 miles of territorial waters around the islands, as well as an extended zone reaching out much further. In early August, the John S. McCain made what is called a Freedom of Navigation Operation patrol (FONO) on one such artificial island off the coast of the Philippines, one of numerous neighbors growing uncomfortable with China’s littoral expansion. The U.S. does not recognize China’s claims on the contested areas and has conducted three FONO patrols in 2017, each one generating an angry Chinese response. The increasing tension has led to speculation that the two Arleigh Burke collisions were the result of Chinese action that affected some part of the ships’ computerized controls. Such speculation may not be correct but it is not completely unfounded either, given China’s advancements in such technologies and the clear determination by Beijing to assert itself in what it sees as its rightful sphere of control and influence. The issue of the South China Sea and the contested territorial claims is going to be one of the more pressing and difficult issues in the months and years to come, with no easy resolution and very high stakes.

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