The U.S. Navy on Monday fired two senior officers who oversaw the warships involved in three major accidents earlier this year, including two collisions in the Western Pacific that left 17 sailors dead.
Rear Adm. Charles Williams was commander of the Navy’s Task Force 70. Based in Japan, he had responsibility for the aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers that patrol throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans. Capt. Jeffrey Bennett was commander of Destroyer Squadron 15 and reported to Williams.
Both were removed from their jobs by Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, who cited a “loss of confidence in their ability to command,” Navy officials said.
Sawyer replaced the previous 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, after he was relieved of command in August for similar reasons.
The string of incidents have led to at least six firings. The removal of Williams and Bennett mark the latest development in a promised accountability sweep as the service seeks to restore confidence in its surface warfare fleet and address glaring questions about commanders’ ability to hone seamanship and readiness amid constant deployments.
They also come as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson is set to testify before Congress on Tuesday, where he’s expected to face difficult questions about the string of mishaps. Experts and naval officers have blamed the accidents partly on the Navy’s “can-do” attitude — the willingness to take on missions while shortchanging maintenance, training and seafaring fundamentals.
The USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer, collided with a container ship in Tokyo Bay on Jun. 17, leaving seven sailors dead and a deep hole in the ship’s starboard side. On Aug. 21, the USS John S. McCain, also a guided-missile destroyer, collided with an oil tanker in a bustling sea transit lane near Singapore, killing 10 sailors.
Two other accidents, including another collision and a ship running aground in Tokyo Bay, have occurred this year. Three of the ships are assigned to the 7th Fleet, which is forward-deployed and tasked with, among other missions, defending against North Korean aggression and checking Chinese territorial expansion.
Commanders across the Navy have scrambled to uncover common factors that may be at play in the incidents.
“We’re getting to defining what the problem is,” a Navy official said Monday, referring to the lessons learned from the Navy-wide operational pause ordered by Richardson after the McCain collision and the ongoing investigations into both deadly accidents.
Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Philip S. Davidson, who oversees training and equipping sailors and ships, will conclude a review of potentially fraying readiness and personnel standards at the end of October, with an emphasis on the 7th Fleet incidents.
As part of that, a host of potential issues will be evaluated, including maintenance, training and fatigue among watch officers, a trio of junior officers tasked with manning the ship and avoiding obstacles. Navy officials say it is too early to conclude whether any of these factors played a role in the recent accidents.
“As soon as we are able to clearly define the problem, then we will communicate to our sailors, their families and the American public,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the Navy’s ongoing reviews.
U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott H. Swift has moved on improving shortcomings ahead of the review, fleet spokesman Capt. Charlie Brown said Monday.
Officials with the newly created Surface Group Western Pacific, an advisory group that will seek to balance certification and maintenance requirements with operational needs, are expected to begin work in Japan as early as this week, Brown said.
Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of the Okinawa-based Task Force 76, will assume command from Williams, with Bennett’s deputy commander, Capt. Jonathan Duffy, taking over duties for the destroyer squadron, the Navy said.
The scrutiny on operations in the Pacific comes as the Pentagon seeks to “rebalance” forces in the region, where it will permanently station 60 percent of its naval assets and combat aircraft.
The Trump administration also is considering plans to expand the Navy to 350 ships. Currently, the fleet has 276 that are able to deploy.
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