Navy relieves admiral in charge of 7th Fleet in wake of deadly disasters at sea

A body recovered by the Royal Malaysian Navy is taken Wednesday to a US Navy helicopter off the Malaysian coast.
Royal Malaysian Navy/Associated Press
A body recovered by the Royal Malaysian Navy is taken Wednesday to a US Navy helicopter off the Malaysian coast.

The Navy on Wednesday relieved the admiral in charge of the service’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan, due to ‘‘loss of confidence’’ in his ability to command, it said in a prepared statement. The move comes after four accidents this year, two of which killed sailors at sea.

Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, relieved Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin from his duties at the 7th Fleet’s Yokosuka base in Japan. Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, the Pacific Fleet’s deputy commander, will immediately take command. He had been scheduled to assume the post on Sept. 7.

The most recent accident was the deadly collision Monday of the destroyer USS John S. McCain with a much heavier oil tanker off Singapore, and a June 17 accident in which the destroyer USS Fitzgerald was ripped open by a larger Japanese container ship.


Seven sailors were killed in the Fitzgerald disaster, and at least some of the 10 sailors reported missing from the Mcain are dead, Swift said Tuesday.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Aucoin has been the 7th Fleet commander since September 2015, and was previously the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems. His removal, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is the highest-profile in the Navy since the disasters occurred.

The collisions have shocked the Navy, where good seamanship and avoiding collisions are a fundamental expectation and demand. Admiral John M. Richardson, the chief of naval operations, announced Monday that he is ordering an ‘‘operational pause’’ across the globe in which commanders take a day or two each to make sure that sailors understand the fundamentals of good seamanship. He also directed a four-star officer, Admiral Phil Davidson of Fleet Forces Command, to launch a separate review of the 7th Fleet over the next few months to assess its culture, operations, and readiness for missions.

Swift, who oversees the 7th Fleet as part of his role as Pacific Fleet commander, expanded the scope of that scrutiny Tuesday, ordering a second step to Richardson’s review that will include all Navy forces in the Pacific. It will include a ‘‘deliberate reset’’ for ships that focuses on navigation, maintaining mechanical systems, and manning the ship’s bridge appropriately, Swift said.

‘‘One tragedy like this is one too many, and while each of these four events is unique, they cannot be viewed in isolation,’’ Swift said of the 7th Fleet’s accidents. ‘‘I welcome the broad, comprehensive view announced by the chief of naval operations.’’


So far this year, the fleet has faced four accidents that together have prompted questions about whether the sailors are being properly trained and supported. On May 9, the guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel. On Jan. 31, the guided-missile cruiser Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay.

The 7th Fleet has headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, and is responsible for an area that spans 36 maritime countries and 48 million square miles in the Pacific and Indian oceans, according to the Navy. The fleet has about 50 to 70 ships assigned to it, including about a dozen at sea at any time. The force’s missions range from responding to natural disasters to countering North Korean threats and Chinese audaciousness in the South China Sea, where Beijing has established new military bases.

‘‘I think it’s important to note that the 7th Fleet is out there all the time, and it has been since World War II ended,’’ said retired Vice Admiral Peter Daly, the chief executive officer of the US Naval Institute. ‘‘It has been heel-to-toe. It has been ships there all the time, and ships deploying there all the time to augment the ships that are already there.’’

Daly, who commanded everything from destroyers to carrier strike groups, said the recent accidents have highlighted what appears to be a disparity between how well ships that are based in Japan perform, as compared with ships that are based in the continental United States or Hawaii and set sail from there. The difference, Daly said, has sparked ‘‘a healthy concern’’ about why there is a difference between the two.

The unusual nature of the accidents has prompted senior Navy leaders to rebut speculation that sabotage or a cyber attack may have caused them. There is no indication either occurred, Swift said Tuesday.


The scrutiny comes as the Navy remains mired in a corruption scandal in which Malaysian defense contractor Leonard Francis offered prostitutes, cash, gifts, and other favors in exchange for information as he made hundreds of millions of dollars of business from the Navy. At least 19 defendants have been convicted, with at least 10 more cases pending.

But there’s another issue at play. Daly and another 7th Fleet veteran, Scott Cheney-Peters, said that years of the Navy reducing its number of ships has taxed the crews of those on the remaining vessels, as the Navy does more with less.