America has acted quickly and decisively following the collision between the USS John S. McCain and a merchant vessel while the guided-missile destroyer was nearing Singapore last week. The accident, which caused casualties, resulted in a fleet-wide review of seamanship and training in the Pacific, and led to the commander of the Seventh Fleet being relieved of his duties. The accident followed the collision, only in June, between the destroyer USS Fitzgerald and a container ship off the coast of Japan that drowned seven sailors. Earlier, a guided-missile cruiser collided with a fishing vessel off the Korean Peninsula in May, and a guided-missile cruiser ran aground in Tokyo Bay in January.
Something clearly is wrong when a world-class navy suffers a series of accidents within several months. When those accidents afflict the United States Navy, second to none in its firepower, technological sophistication and global reach, Americans and their international partners will want to understand the underlying causes so as to ensure the future is safer, both for US naval ships and for vessels that share sea space with them.
Yet, the fact remains that the latest accident occurred in a crowded waterway. Unless sabotage from within the ship or a cyber attack that affected its computer systems could be said to be the cause, the tragic incident must remain an accident. It does not detract from the everyday professionalism with which Americans safeguard waters far from their borders so that the fruits of free commerce in peace may be available to the peoples of many countries. It is not a small matter of maritime geography that the Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, covers an area of 124 million sq km from Japan, South Korea and Singapore. It operates no fewer than 70 ships, including the US Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors. Singapore assisted with search-and-rescue operations for the sailors missing after the USS John S. McCain tragedy, signalling its role in the preservation of a maritime order in which nations both small and large can prosper.
It is regrettable that the accidents which have befallen the US Navy lately have provoked an unseemly bout of premature triumphalism in certain media quarters. An egregious commentary has proclaimed that America's freedom of navigation (FON) exercises are a threat to commercial shipping in Asia. In reality, the threat emanates from piracy and from higher-order national acts that make the high seas the target of great-power rivalry and potential conflict. The assurance given by the US Pacific Air Forces commander after the latest accident, that FON operations will continue, reiterates the point that the forward deployment of America's naval power remains crucial to the strategic and economic security of Asia.