US Admiral Scott Swift has relieved three-star Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the US Navy's 7th Fleet in the Pacific today after confirming yesterday (22 August) that search and rescue efforts following a collision between USS John S McCain and the Alnic MC tanker near Singapore had found multiple human remains.
A US Navy press release said "Admiral Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command. Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer ... will assume command immediately."
Admiral Aucoin was due to step down next month, and Admiral Sawyer, who will be promoted to Vice Admiral, had been previously confirmed as his successor.
The collision involving USS John S McCain was the second in Asian waters in recent weeks involving a US warship and left 10 US Navy sailors missing and five injured. The first – between USS Fitzgerald and containership ACX Crystal – claimed the lives of seven US sailors.
Admiral Swift said that the Malaysian Navy had recovered one body during an ongoing search and rescue effort and that US military divers had also found remains during a search of compartments onboard USS John S McCain that had been sealed off to contain flooding in damaged parts of the vessel.
“We have a report that [the Malaysian Navy] have found a body. We’re in the process of effecting a transfer of that body so that we can start the identification process and determine whether it’s one of the missing sailors or not,” Swift told a press conference that was streamed live over the US Pacific Fleet’s Facebook page.
“We have discovered other bodies during the diving on [USS John S] McCain today, but it’s premature to say how many and what the status of the recovery of those bodies is,” Admiral Swift went on to say.
Equipped with surface-supplied air rigs, divers accessed sealed compartments located in damaged parts of the ship during the search and conducted damage assessments of the hull and flooded areas.
The US Navy’s guided missile destroyer was underway east of the Straits of Malacca early in the morning, local time, on 21 August, heading for a routine port stop in Singapore when it collided with the Alnic MC tanker. Hours later, USS John S McCain sailed into port at Changi Naval Base under its own power after damage control efforts by the crew halted flooding on board.
Swift praised the efforts of the crew, saying “The ship initially had a list, and it was righted based on the efforts of the sailors. USS John S McCain was up and running almost immediately after it was hit … It is clear that the damage control efforts of the crew saved the ship and saved lives.”
USS John S McCain sustained significant damage to her port side aft in the collision. The flooding was halted, but the extent of the damage is still being determined, according to Swift, who said a full investigation of the event would be undertaken.
Following the incident, the US Chief of Naval Operations ordered a fleetwide review of the US fleet in the Pacific. In response to questions about the fleetwide review, Admiral Swift addressed speculations about whether technical failure, negligence or cyber attacks were to blame for the mounting number of ship collisions in the region.
Swift said the collisions involving US Navy ships cannot be viewed in isolation and that it was the US Navy’s goal to find out whether there is a common cause underlying the uptick.
“The investigation is in its very earliest stages. I’ve heard of these reports of cyber attacks or cyber interference. We’ve seen no indications of that as of yet. But I think the chief of naval operations was very clear that we are not taking any consideration off the table, and every scenario will be reviewed and investigated in detail.”
Meanwhile, the search and rescue for the ten missing US sailors remains underway, according to Swift.
“Right now, we are still searching for our ten missing sailors. That remains our focus. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of those sailors and the families of the sailors who were injured.”
While diving proceeds, vessels and aircraft from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy are engaged in search and rescue activities at sea along with U.S. Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopters from amphibious assault ship USS America. Those search efforts are focused on an area east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore where the collision occurred.
The Liberia-flagged, 50,760 dwt Alnic MC was transporting fuel oil from Taiwan to discharge in Singapore when the collision occurred and proceeded to Raffles Reserved Anchorage for damage assessment following the incident. Shipowners Stealth Maritime said in a statement that the 183 m ship had sustained damage, contradicting earlier reports.
“As a result of the collision Alnic MC sustained damage to her fore peak tank; there were no injuries to crew and no reported pollution of the Singapore Strait,” the statement said.