U.S. Navy Destroyer Collides With Cargo Ship Off Singapore

Aug 21, 2017
Originally published on August 21, 2017 7:49 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis says there will be a wider investigation into U.S. Naval operations after an American warship collided with an oil tanker near Singapore. Ten sailors are still missing. Five are reported injured after the USS John S. McCain rammed into the oil tanker early this morning.

This comes after a similar incident just two months ago, when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a containership off the coast of Japan. Seven U.S. crew members died in that incident. The Fitzgerald's commander and two other senior ship officers have since been relieved of their duties by the Navy. Joining us now to talk about this latest collision and its implications for defense in the region is David Larter, a Navy veteran and a staff writer for Defense News. Welcome.

DAVID LARTER: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, first, walk us through what we know happened so far - any updates on the injured and the missing?

LARTER: So there's no updates yet on the missing. Four of the sailors were medically evacuated, or medevaced, from the ship earlier in the day - daytime over there. And so far, the effort to turn up any of the 10 missing sailors has been unsuccessful - so far as we know.

CHANG: OK. You were on a team of Navy navigators, right? I mean, how can something like this happen? How can a U.S. destroyer with all of its technology and sensors collide with a tanker?

LARTER: It's almost - it's almost hard to understand. There are a lot of safeguards. And the fact that it has happened twice just this summer is deeply troubling. There are watch standers on the bridge, which is the area at the - closest to the highest point on the ship, where generally the officer of the deck, the conning officer, the person that's in charge of make - giving orders to the guy that steers the ship, is up there.

They were in a very busy shipping lane. They were getting ready to head into the Straits of Malacca. So they would have been, probably, if not manned up at a higher level, just getting ready to man up at a higher level because they were just outside what's called the traffic separation scheme, which is like a highway - the sort of the lanes that the ships get into to either enter or exit port. It's tightly controlled. And when you do that on Navy ships, you man up a special - what's called a navigation detail.

So if they weren't there, they were getting ready to get there most likely. So it's hard to understand how it would happen. There are - there are radars. There's lookouts. There's people that are - whose entire job - virtually your entire job is making sure you don't hit a ship when you're not actively fighting a war.

CHANG: And I understand that this is now the fourth incident in waters near Asia involving a U.S. naval vessel this year. Does that seem like a lot to you, four incidents?

LARTER: It does. I can't recall a run like this in any - you know, because these are all 7th Fleet ships. The 7th Fleet - the U.S. 7th Fleet is based in Japan. It's known as the forward-deployed naval force. They are supposed, then - and as the name implies, they're considered always deployed. When sailors take orders to FDNF ships in Japan and their families move out there, it's with the understanding they're not going to see each other very often. It's a very high-operational-tempo environment. These ships are supposed to be the highest trained, the most ready and the most deployable ships.

CHANG: And what would be the implications of a collision like this for stability in the region? I mean, I imagine that this was a ship that could have come into play with North Korea. Was this ship a major player?

LARTER: It is. According to Missile Defense Agency - and I just looked this up - Both John McCain and Fitzgerald are what's called ballistic missile defense ships. So yes, it's not good that two of the ships that we have out there that are out there to specifically shoot down ballistic missiles are now out of commission due to a collision.

CHANG: OK. David Larter is a staff writer for Defense News. He joined us via Skype. Thank you very much for joining us, David.

LARTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.