Rebalancing US Navy 7th Fleet towards training, preparation is key, says new commander

Vice-Admiral Phil Sawyer said the operational demands on the US Navy 7th Fleet were so high that not enough emphasis was placed on sailors' preparation and training. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

SINGAPORE - The operational demands on the US Navy 7th Fleet were so high that not enough emphasis was placed on sailors' preparation and training, said the new commander of the fleet on Friday (Oct 13).

This was Vice-Admiral Phil Sawyer's take on the preliminary findings of two collisions involving 7th Fleet ships this year.

Speaking to the media on the third day of a five-day visit to Singapore, Vice-Adm Sawyer said: "I think, over time, the balance shifted too much to the operational side, and not enough to making sure that our teams were rested, were trained, were able to go do the things we were asking them to do.

"If I had the entire US Navy out in Yokosuka, Japan, I still would not be able to do all the things that everybody would want me to do."

Because of this, one of his tasks would be to "prioritise those and execute those things that we can execute", he said at the press conference at PSA Sembawang.

These remarks follow a 7th Fleet statement earlier this week that said the warship's commander and his deputy had been relieved of their duties - the commander on account of having exercised poor judgment, and his deputy because of poor leadership of the ship's training programme.

The vice-admiral replaced Vice-Adm Joseph Aucoin two months ago following a loss of confidence in his ability to command, after the US guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant ship near Singapore, killing 10 sailors.

The McCain's sister ship, the Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan in June after colliding with a Philippine container ship, in an incident that killed seven sailors.

In his first interview since assuming command, Vice-Adm Sawyer cited the setting up of the new Naval Surface Group Western Pacific to train and certify forward-deployed surface ships operating out of Japan as one of the ways the US Navy is bringing this balance "back to normal".

He is in Singapore to thank the Singapore Armed Forces for their support following the collision of the John S. McCain, and to reaffirm Singapore's role as a strategic partner.

On his choice of Singapore as the place to give his first media interview in his new role, Vice-Adm Sawyer said that it shows there is "no doubt" that Singapore is one of the US Navy's strategic partners.

"We work very closely with the Singapore Navy... we value (the relationship) very highly, and we show that by continuing our work with Singapore on a daily basis."

The 7th Fleet said in a statement released in Japan on Wednesday that the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a merchant ship near Singapore was preventable. The commanding officer had exercised poor judgment, and the executive officer exhibited poor leadership of the ship's training programme, it said.

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