US watchdog set to raise safety issues of Pacific fleet

Over a third of warfare training certs for ships based in Japan has expired, its report says

ATLANTA • A United States government watchdog yesterday was expected to publicly raise its concern about the safety and readiness of US ships in the Pacific after a series of four navy ship collisions in the region this year which resulted in the deaths of 17 US sailors.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was expected to warn lawmakers that more than a third of warfare training certifications for the navy's Japan-based destroyers and cruisers had expired in June, CNN reported.

The network said its report was based on a copy of the GAO's testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee. The testimony focused on destroyers and cruisers, the two kinds of ships involved in this year's collisions.

The GAO found that as of June, eight of the navy's 11 destroyers and cruisers based in Japan had expired certifications for mobility and seamanship, air warfare and undersea warfare, according to CNN.

More than two-thirds of the certifications were expired for a period of five months or more.

The most common reason for expired certifications was the operational schedule of the ships.

The warning by the watchdog would bring up fresh questions on the causes behind the collisions and renew concern about the growing fleet. The GAO, along with military leaders and lawmakers, have long highlighted their worries about the navy's readiness as the duration of deployments lengthens.

"The navy has had to shorten, eliminate, or defer training and maintenance periods to support these high deployment rates," CNN quoted the GAO's Mr John Pendleton, director of defence capabilities and management, as saying in the written testimony.

He also said the navy's readiness problem has worsened since May of 2015, when GAO last looked at the issue, the Washington Examiner reported.

"The navy wants to grow its fleet by as much as 30 per cent but continues to face challenges with manning, training and maintaining its existing fleet," Mr Pendleton said.

On Aug 21, the navy's USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian- flagged oil tanker near Singapore, killing 10 sailors.

On June 17, the McCain's sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a Philippine container ship, killing seven US sailors.

In May, the Lake Champlain guided-missile cruiser collided with a South Korean fishing vessel, although the crash caused no injuries.

That incident followed another in January, when the USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, gushing more than 3,785 litres of hydraulic oil near Yokosuka, where the US maintains a large naval base.

The mishaps this year prompted the navy to call for a broad investigation into the Seventh Fleet's operations, which have got busier amid challenges in the South China Sea and from North Korea.

Headquartered in Japan, the fleet operates 70 ships, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline 'US watchdog set to raise safety issues of Pacific fleet'. Print Edition | Subscribe