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Rescuers Seek 10 Missing Sailors After U.S. Navy Ship and Tanker Collide

The collision occurred in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, a narrow waterway of strategic significance connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, where Beijing has been challenging American naval dominance. It immediately raised questions about the training and safety record of Navy ships, coming just two months after another Navy destroyer collided with a freighter off Japan, killing seven American sailors.

“Clearly this is an annus horribilis for the U.S. Navy,” said Euan Graham, the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.

Kirk Patterson, a former dean of the Japan campus of Temple University who has crossed the Pacific in a sailboat and circumnavigated Japan, said, “It is really hard to understand with all the technology that’s out there in the world on a boat, especially a naval destroyer that’s supposed to be the best in the world.” For a destroyer to be hit by an oil tanker would be “like an F1 sports car and a garbage truck,” he said. “Which one is going to be able to avoid the collision? An F1 racing car equipped with state-of-the-art missiles.”


The John S. McCain being guided by a tugboat outside Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Monday. Credit Roslan Rahman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A destroyer going through a difficult a passage like the Strait of Malacca would typically have half a dozen sailors, including two officers, on the bridge watching for the lights of other ships, said retired Navy Capt. Bernard D. Cole, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and professor emeritus at the National War College.

In such clogged traffic, it would also be common for the commanding officer or the executive officer, the two most senior officers on board, to be on the bridge, he said. There would also be a navigator and other enlisted men in the combat information center scanning radar.

Once the oil tanker was detected, Captain Cole said, the officer on deck or the commanding officer would propose some kind of evasive action to avoid the collision. Most likely, he said, they would have called the other ship to propose a plan for safe passage.

But “in some places like the approaches to the Malacca Strait, geographically you don’t have a lot of flexibility” given how narrow the channel is, he said, adding, “It can be confusing at night.”

Typically, in a situation where a crew becomes confused by heavy ship traffic and lights, the advice is to “find the darkest part of the ocean and head for it.”

“That is all well and good in the middle of the Pacific,” Captain Cole said, “but you can’t do that in the Malacca Strait.”

A picture of the John S. McCain showed a gaping hole in its side right at the waterline, but the ship did not appear to be listing.

In a statement, the Navy said the destroyer had reached Changi Naval Base in Singapore. “Significant damage to the hull resulted in flooding to nearby compartments, including crew berthing, machinery and communications rooms,” the statement said. “Damage control efforts by the crew halted further flooding.”

In Yokosuka, Japan, the destroyer’s home port, the Navy set up a hotline for parents to receive information, but after Mrs. Meriano dialed the number, she wrote: “No info on it. No updates stateside for parents. We are the only family and no info here yet.”


An injured American sailor being unloaded from a Singapore military helicopter outside Singapore General Hospital on Monday. Credit Singapore Ministry of Defense, via European Pressphoto Agency

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, an adviser of the Japan Captains’ Association. “This is one of the top most difficult spots for ships going by.”

Navy ships “frequently transit” the strait without incident, said Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, with which the John S. McCain is deployed. “It’s not unusual at all,” he said.

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.

While Mr. Graham said it “beggared belief” that any merchant vessel approaching the Strait of Malacca would be operating on autopilot in such a congested waterway, he acknowledged that “years of cost-cutting within the industry can mean that ships have skeleton crews that will be at their lowest level of watchfulness in the hours just before dawn.”

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 collide with the Alnic MC, a handful of separate functions in the safety chain, such as binocular sightings by officers in the observation deck and radar operations in the bridge and below, must have failed, the officer said.

While on operations, warships do not emit standard satellite tracking signals that other larger vessels use to avoid collision. “They don’t want other countries to know where they are going,” Mr. Graham said. “There is a degree of stealth. So that puts the balance of responsibility on the warship to maintain watchfulness in case it’s not spotted by other vessels.”

Commercial tankers can be reluctant to shift their course, because maneuvering requires turning off the autopilot and costs time and money, the Navy officer added.

The Alnic MC, which has a gross tonnage roughly three times that of the John S. McCain, is registered under a Liberian flag and was built in 2008, according to a marine registry. The tanker, which is now anchored in Singapore for damage assessment, was struck on the front part of its hull, but none of its crew were injured, according to a statement from the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.


The oil and chemical tanker Alnic MC after the collision on Monday in waters east of the Strait of Malacca. Credit Royal Malaysian Navy, via Associated Press

No oil leaks have been reported in the area, according to the Singaporean authority.

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 on Sunday night, said, “That’s too bad.” He later offered his “thoughts & prayers” to the sailors aboard the ship.

The Navy conducts periodic forays through contested waters. Though the United States has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, its allies do. This month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the United States after the John S. McCain sailed by Mischief Reef, a disputed South China Sea feature that China controls and has expanded through extensive reclamation.

On the destroyer’s Facebook page, the ship’s activities earlier this month were described as “a patrol in the South China Sea in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

The collision on Monday 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.

A preliminary report on the June 17 accident described how seawater poured through a hole in the Fitzgerald’s hull within 90 seconds, sending sailors racing from their flooding quarters. Both of the destroyer’s top commanding officers were asleep when the collision occurred.

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

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.

Source: NYT > World

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