US Navy 7th Fleet to refocus on crew preparation and training

New commander of the US Navy 7th Fleet Phil Sawyer said the balance had shifted too much to the operational side of things over time. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

The operational demands on the US Navy 7th Fleet were so high that not enough emphasis was placed on its crew's preparation and training, its new commander Phil Sawyer said yesterday.

In his first interview since assuming command on Aug 23, the vice-admiral was sharing his take on preliminary findings of two collisions involving vessels in the US 7th Fleet, which looks after the western Pacific Ocean and enforces the Americans' regional protector role.

"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," said Vice-Admiral Sawyer.

At one point, he said that even if he had the entire US Navy out in Yokosuka, Japan - where the fleet is based - he "still would not be able to do all the things that everybody would want me to do".

One of his tasks thus as commander would be to "prioritise those and execute those things that we can execute", Vice-Adm Sawyer said during a media briefing.

He referred to 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 was bringing this balance "back to normal".

"Its job is going to make sure its units are trained and ready to go before we fully employ them in all the operations out here," he said.

Vice-Adm Sawyer was appointed to replace Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin as 7th Fleet commander, following a collision between the guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain and a merchant ship in Singapore waters on Aug 21, killing 10 sailors. The collision happened at 5.24am en route to a routine call in Singapore, which left a hole in the destroyer's hull.

Singapore's Transport Safety Investigation Bureau is investigating the incident, in a process that typically takes up to a year, while the US Navy is holding its own probe. The ship left Singapore this week for repairs in Yokosuka.

The collision worsened concerns over the US Navy as a fighting force that had arisen after the McCain's sister ship, the Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan in June after colliding with a Philippine container ship. Seven sailors died.

Vice-Adm Sawyer's moves since taking over include firing the commander and deputy commander of the McCain for having exercised poor judgment, and for poor leadership of the ship's training programme, respectively.

Asked if there would be new rules for US naval vessels when they near busy ports like Singapore, Vice-Adm Sawyer said it was very likely that they might implement some measures based on findings of the investigations on how things could have been done differently.

"At this point, it is premature for me to speculate on that," he added.

Vice-Adm Sawyer, whose last role was deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said his decision in picking Singapore to give his first media interview showed there was "no doubt" that Singapore was 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'US Navy 7th Fleet to refocus on crew preparation and training'. Print Edition | Subscribe