Sea Breezes Editor, Hamish Ross

An alarming year for the US Navy

Like many others with an interest in maritime matters, I have been noting with alarm the frequency of major incidents affecting the US Navy in 2017.

The most recent of these was the collision between the destroyer USS John S McCain and an oil tanker (Alnic MC) off the coast of Singapore in August. Tragically the lives of ten US sailors were lost in this incident.

This was the fourth accident involving US Navy vessels in the Asia-Pacific region this year, and the second fatal one within two months. In June there were seven deaths after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship (ACX Crystal) near Japan. The latest disaster triggered the dismissal of the Commander of the famous US Seventh Fleet – the mainstay of America’s military efforts in Asian waters. It also prompted a “global pause in operations“ for any immediate actions to be taken to preserve safety.

As well as the tragic loss of life, this catalogue of mishaps is reputationally damaging and politically very unhelpful to the US at a time of escalating tensions in the region and when it is positioning itself to offer steadfast support to allies such as South Korea and Japan.

Aside from the obvious propaganda win for China and other critics of the US – who might claim that such incidents are evidence of the US over-stretching itself or just sheer incompetence – for most observers there is simply bemusement that warships with such sophisticated equipment and navigational systems have such an appalling track record of safety over the last eight months.

It would appear that cyber attacks (on either the Naval or merchant ships involved in the collisions) have been ruled out, so the US Navy inquiries will need to ask some searching questions on what has gone wrong. Already there has been some commentary suggesting that the causes may include too many missions with too few ships, and not enough time for extensive training.

Whatever the speculation, it is imperative that the actual root causes of these tragedies are identified as quickly and as honestly as possible.