Navy sacks 7th Fleet commander after 2nd deadly collision

Last Updated Aug 23, 2017 2:43 PM EDT

The U.S. Navy announced on Wednesday morning that the commander of its 7th Fleet had been dismissed "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command."

U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift relieved Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin of his command. Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer, who had already been named to succeed Aucoin earlier, assumed command immediately.

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, former U.S. 7th Fleet Commander, speaks to media on June 18, 2017.

Reuters

Vessels under the command of the 7th Fleet, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan, have been involved in a string of incidents at sea in Asia this year, including the deadly collision of the USS John S. McCain with a merchant tanker this week, which left 10 U.S. sailors missing and presumed dead.

The collision on Monday tore a large hole in the side of the McCain. U.S. Marine Corps. and Navy divers joined the search effort on Tuesday and found some remains inside the stricken vessel as they accessed flooded compartments.

The McCain is docked at Singapore's Changi Naval Base, and efforts to recover the missing sailors continue.

The chief of U.S. Naval operations officially called for all Navy ships worldwide to halt operations and review basic training on Monday, just hours after the fatal collision near the busy shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca.

As CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reported, the Navy called it an "operational pause." It was meant to give ship commanders a chance to review basic seamanship and teamwork after a series of incidents in the Pacific which have called into question the level of training on U.S. Naval vessels.

The fear is that the gaping hole in the side of yet another U.S. warship could be a sign of a bigger problem in the Pacific. The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain suffered extensive damage when it collided with the oil and chemical tanker as it sailed toward Singapore for a routine port visit.

USS John S. McCain
Getty

Navy officials have not confirmed details from an initial investigation which pointed to a possible loss of steering on the McCain, but they've said there were no obvious signs of sabotage or a cyberattack. They stressed, however, that all leads would be run down as part of the investigation into the collision.

Adm. Swift said any negligence on the part of the U.S. Navy crew aboard the McCain, or the other vessel involved, would be a "determination of the investigation," which was ongoing.

"I've directed a more comprehensive review to ensure we get at the contributing factors … the root causes of these incidents," Adm. John Richardson, the chief of U.S. Naval operations, said on Tuesday.

Just two months ago, another ship from the 7th fleet, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan. Seven Navy sailors died in that incident.

On Friday, the Fitzgerald's captain, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, was relieved of his duties and several other sailors were punished -- a sign that mistakes were made on the U.S. warship.

"It does show there's still some kind of systemic issues on the deck," retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons tells CBS News. "Whether or not there are people that are qualified, whether they are certified or they are using all of the things at their disposal to make sure this does not happen again."

There have now been four incidents this year involving ships from the 7th fleet. In May, a guided missile cruiser collided with a South Korean fishing vessel, and in January another cruiser ran aground in Tokyo Bay.