Recent collisions in the western Pacific between ships of the U.S. Navy and commercial ships highlight a continuing hazard for U.S. military: unsound practices when navigating ocean shipping corridors. During the first eight months of 2017, two DDG guided-missile destroyers from the Seventh Fleet and one of its CG guided-missile cruisers collided with commercial ships.
Both DDG destroyers were badly damaged, and 17 Navy sailors aboard them died. The much larger commercial ships with which they collided suffered no injuries to crew and were able to continue operations at sea. Commercial shippers tend to employ locally experienced captains or pilots to navigate congested shipping corridors.
The U.S. employs Navy personnel mainly trained to navigate open ocean. It is at a disadvantage around busy shipping corridors. To compensate, rules require multiple personnel on duty for navigation and require ship captains on duty during known hazards. On the day of the second major collision in 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered an emergency “stand down” and a comprehensive review of operating safety for the entire Seventh Fleet.
Information available to the public during the third week in August shows differing circumstances for the two major collisions. The later one, between the USS McCain and the Alnic MC commercial oil tanker, occurred within a narrow, internationally recognized shipping channel at the east end of the Singapore Strait. The earlier one, between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal container ship, occurred in coastal waters of Japan, regulated as open seas.
USS Fitzgerald collision: The USS Fitzgerald collision occurred about 10 miles southeast of Shimoda, Japan. Located near the mouth of Sagami Bay, that sea zone is crossed by around 400 large merchant ships a day, according to the Coast Guard of Japan. Like USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal, many of them are headed toward or away from the port of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.
The zone does not have regulated shipping channels, yet the Tokyo Islands of the Izu chain–Oshima, Toshima, Nijima and Kozushima–form a corridor narrowing to about 15 miles in width when approaching Sagami Bay from the south. That is narrower than most of the famously hazardous Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra.
The USS Fitzgerald was sailing generally southwest, close to the center of the corridor between the Izu Peninsula and the Tokyo Islands, when it was speared on the starboard side by the ACX Crystal container ship, sailing generally northeast through the corridor. A more cautious course for the USS Fitzgerald could have taken it a few miles closer to Shimoda and the Izu Peninsula, among most of the ship traffic heading generally southwest, although possibly at a slower speed.
Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the New York Times published a tracking video showing the path of the ACX Crystal around the time of collision with the USS Fitzgerald. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Times tracking video does not show the other ships in the area. The Times stated there were no transmissions available from the USS Fitzgerald.
The Times video showed the ACX Crystal making a sudden change in direction and halting, then going on but soon returning to the site of the sudden change, then continuing toward Yokohama. Spearing the starboard side of the USS Fitzgerald suggests that Fitzgerald failed to yield according to international conventions of maritime navigation. The U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.
USS McCain collision: The USS McCain collision occurred about 9 miles east of Tanjung Penyusup–at the southeast extreme of the Malaysia mainland–shortly after entering the shipping channel for the Singapore Strait. Some news reports confused the Singapore Strait with the adjacent, much longer Malacca Strait. According to the local association of ship pilots, the Singapore Strait is traversed by about 150 large merchant ships a day.
Both the USS McCain and the Alnic MC were headed generally southwest, toward Singapore. The strait, which narrows to less then four miles, has an internationally recognized shipping channel that is monitored by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It is the chief ocean bottleneck for shipping between east Asia and India, the Persian Gulf, east Africa, the Middle East and Europe, via the Suez Canal.
The course of the USS McCain, at the time it was speared on the port side by the Alnic MC oil tanker, remains unclear. Both ships should have been headed in nearly the same direction, generally southwest, after entering the east end of the shipping channel.
Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the London Daily Mail published a tracking video showing the path of the Alnic MC around the time of collision with the USS McCain. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Daily Mail tracking video shows many other commercial ships in the area, but it does not show any military ships, including the USS McCain and a Malaysian Navy ship some news reports said was nearby.
At 00:48 into the video (21:19:40 GMT), several ships are sailing southwest at about 9 to 12 knots on the north side of the channel. Others are sailing in the opposite direction on the south side. In a cluster of three, Team Oslo leads Alnic MC, followed by Guang Zhou Wang, just entering the east end of the shipping channel. Alnic MC posts a speed of about 9-1/2 knots.
At 00:51 into the video (21:24:50 GMT), Alnic MC has suddenly veered south and lowered its speed. It is inside the shipping channel, toward the center and about a mile past the entrance. It comes almost to a halt and continues to turn. Guang Zhou Wang and other ships pass. After turning a total of about 225 degrees, Alnic MC moves northward, crossing and leaving the shipping channel.
Alnic MC then completes a full turn of 360 degrees and proceeds southwest–outside the shipping channel on the north side. BBC and other news media reported that the collision took place at 21:24 GMT, coinciding with Alnic MC veering southward. For Alnic MC to spear USS McCain on its port side, the Navy ship looks to have maneuvered in some rogue manner within the shipping channel, not in the usual southwest flow toward Singapore at 9 to 12 knots. Again, the U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.
Troubled organization: The Seventh Fleet appears to have been a troubled organization for years. As of August, 2017, 28 of its officers had been charged with official corruption in the “Fat Leonard” contracting scandal. Nineteen admitted accepting bribes and favors in return for supplying advance notice of fleet movements and ignoring issues with contracts. Dozens more investigations are said to be underway.
The Seventh Fleet has been reported with more severe morale problems than the other Navy fleets, some say because of shorter breaks between deployments at sea. However, it is the only “forward deployed” fleet, with its home base in a foreign country. Seventh Fleet staff face years-long tours of duty with their immediate families imbedded in a foreign culture whose language and customs are difficult to learn. Staffing shortages have been reported in some high-demand specialties, including sonar operators.
In 2016 the commander of Yokosuka Naval Base, the home of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, was dismissed for failing to maintain standards. Two days after the major collision with a commercial ship in August, 2017, the commander of the Seventh Fleet was dismissed. New prosecutions for corruption and sharp questions about navigation errors in the recent collisions may make recovery of confidence slow and difficult.
– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 23, 2017
Ken Moritsugu, Associated Press, Navy dismisses Seventh Fleet commander after warship accidents, ABC News, August 23, 2017
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Tracking video: collision off Singapore, London Daily Mail crediting MarineTraffic, August 21, 2017
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Maritime traffic in southeast Asia, MarineTraffic (London), 2017
Automatic Identification System, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2017
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Navigation Safety Guidance for Tokyo Area, Coast Guard of Japan, 2014 (in English)