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10 Sailors Missing After U.S. Destroyer Collides With Oil Tanker Off Singapore

The Strait of Malacca, between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is notoriously difficult to navigate because of congested traffic and episodes of piracy over the years.

“It’s always crowded, with ships entering Singapore and others passing by,” said Shigeru Kojima, adviser of the Japan Captains’ Association. “This is one of the top most difficult spots for ships going by.”

Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, said that one recurring problem was that while naval ships tended to have live crews on watch, most commercial ships work on autopilot mode to reduce costs, which can lead to problems in busy sea lanes.

Nighttime duty on Navy ships like the John S. McCain is often in the hands of relatively young officers, between 22 and 24, according to a senior Navy officer. They are backed up by officers working the radar and looking out from the command center below the bridge. For the John S. McCain to have hit the Alnic MC, a handful of separate functions in the safety chain must have failed, the officer said.

Commercial tankers can be reluctant to shift their course because maneuvering requires turning off the autopilot and costs time and money, the officer added. The Alnic MC has a gross tonnage roughly three times that of the John S. McCain.

The Strait of Malacca is a strategic choke point between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Much of Asia’s oil imports transit through the channel and into the South China Sea, which is home to territorial disputes among China and various other claimants and is a flash point of military tensions between the United States and China.

China has transformed islets it controls in the South China Sea into fortified artificial islands, even as an international tribunal last year dismissed Beijing’s claims to much of the waterway.

President Trump, asked about the collision by reporters at the White House, said, “That’s too bad.”

The Navy conducts periodic forays through contested waters. Earlier this month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the United States after the John S. McCain sailed by a disputed South China Sea island that China controls and has expanded through extensive reclamation.

The collision came two months after one of the Navy’s deadliest accidents in years, when another destroyer, the Fitzgerald, collided with a freighter off Japan. Seven people on the Fitzgerald were killed, and the Navy relieved the destroyer’s two top officers of their duties on Friday after an investigation into the collision. That freighter was 728 feet long.

In May, the Lake Champlain, a Navy cruiser, collided with a South Korean fishing vessel, but no injuries resulted from that crash. In February, another guided-missile cruiser, the Antietam, ran aground in Tokyo Bay, gushing more than 1,000 gallons of hydraulic fluid near the American naval base at Yokosuka, Japan.

The John S. McCain, the Antietam and the Fitzgerald are all in the Seventh Fleet and are based in Yokosuka. The ship involved in the collision on Monday is named after John S. McCain Sr., a Navy admiral during World War II, and his son, John S. McCain Jr., a Navy admiral in the Vietnam era. They are the grandfather and father of Senator John McCain of Arizona, who offered his prayers for the crew.

Correction: August 21, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated John S. McCain Sr.’s relationship to Senator John McCain of Arizona. John S. McCain Sr. was the senator’s grandfather, not his father. The article also described the source of the ship’s name incompletely. It is named after John S. McCain Sr. and John S. McCain Jr., not John S. McCain Sr. alone.

Source: NYT > World

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