WASHINGTON, D.C.: The commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet will be relieved of duty after a deadly collision between a destroyer and a tanker off Singapore, the latest in a series of accidents, a defense official said Tuesday.
The decision to remove Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from the post in Japan comes as the Navy undertakes a fleet-wide global investigation after Monday’s incident involving the USS John S. McCain, which left 10 sailors missing and five injured.
The Seventh Fleet, which compromises ships, submarines and aircraft, is the centerpiece of the US military presence in Asia, undertaking sensitive missions such as operations in the South China Sea and around the Korean peninsula.
Admiral Aucoin has been commander of the fleet since September 2015 and has been in the navy since 1980.
Monday’s accident was the second fatal collision in two months—after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan in June, leaving seven sailors dead—and the fourth accident in the Pacific this year involving an American warship.
The incidents have sparked concern that the US Navy could be overstretched in East Asia as it tackles China’s rising assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The latest accident happened before dawn in busy shipping lanes around the Strait of Singapore, leaving a gaping hole in the hull of the warship and flooding it with water.
A massive search involving planes and aircraft was launched and US Navy divers joined the hunt Tuesday, scouring the ship’s flooded compartments.
The divers had found remains of some of the sailors, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said Tuesday without giving further details.
Malaysian authorities, which have deployed 10 ships and two helicopters for the search, also said they found a body and a US Navy helicopter collected it on Wednesday.
Five countries—the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia—are now involved in the search covering an area of about 2,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles).
The McCain had been heading for a routine stop in Singapore after carrying out a “freedom of navigation operation” in the disputed South China Sea earlier in August, sparking a furious response from Beijing.
On Monday the Chief of US Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson ordered commanders within a week to set aside time, perhaps “one or two days,” for crews to sit down together for discussions.
A “comprehensive review” of practices would also begin.
The admiral did not rule out some kind of outside interference or a cyber-attack being behind the latest collision, but said he did not want to prejudge the inquiry. His broader remarks suggested a focus on “how we do business on the bridge.”
The damaged vessel is named after US Senator John McCain’s father and grandfather, who were both admirals in the US navy.
The tanker involved in the collision, which was used for transporting oil and chemicals and weighed over 30,000 gross tons, sustained some damage but no crew were injured and it did not leak oil.