Collision course – what do recent incidents mean for the US Navy?
Admiral John Richardson, the US Navy CNO, has called for an ‘operational pause’ to be taken in all US fleets around the world following the second collision between a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and a commercial vessel.
The collision between the USS John S. McCain and the Liberian-flagged ALNIC MC oil tanker off the coast of Malaysia was the latest in a series of incidents in the Pacific theatre, which now totals four reported collisions within a year.
The latest collision follows an incident on 17 June in which the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship killing seven US sailors. The S. McCain and Fitzgerald are both part of the US Seventh Fleet stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
An operational pause of all US Navy (USN) fleet activity suggests serious concerns among officials of an emerging trend in the service’s conduct and comes at a time of intensifying competition for naval dominance and power projection between the US and China.
China is placing increasing pressure on US regional naval dominance after opening their first overseas military base and naval support facility in Djibouti on 1 August. The rate at which they are producing naval vessels may soon result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) overtaking the US as the dominant naval force in the Asia-Pacific region.
This rivalry was clearly on display when in the aftermath of the latest collision as Chinese media outlet China Daily ran an opinion piece claiming the incident demonstrated that the USN is ‘becoming a hazard’ and ‘hindrance to ships sailing in Asian waters’.
The piece goes on to condemn US naval activities, describing them as Washington’s attempt to ‘rebalance’ the region and painted the service as a ‘dangerous obstacle in Asian waters’.
While the investigation into the events surrounding the latest collision are underway, an ongoing investigation into the causes of the incident involving the USS Fitzgerald has already resulted in the removal of the commanding officer, executive officer and senior non-commissioned officer from their posts.
Despite recent events a number of military exercises involving the USN are taking place in Southeast Asia, as some flexibility has been granted to fleet commanders on the timing of their one day operational pause to minimise disruption.
The navy is currently involved in the military drills taking place with South Korean forces amidst high tensions on the Korean Peninsula and on 21 August the service began the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise (SEACAT) which involves forces from 11 countries from across Southeast Asia.