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What's Behind The Navy Ship Collisions

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The admiral in charge of the U.S. 7th Fleet has just been relieved of duty because of a loss of confidence in his ability to command. This comes after the latest fatal collision between a U.S. Naval vessel and a merchant ship. The Navy as well as the governments of Malaysia and Singapore are continuing to search for the bodies of missing sailors from the USS John S. McCain. Now, after four collisions since January, the entire 7th Fleet is now planning an operational pause as Navy officials try to ensure safety. We have retired Admiral Douglas Crowder on the line. He is the former commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet. Admiral, welcome to the program.

WILLIAM DOUGLAS CROWDER: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what do you make of Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin being relieved of his duties? Does that move makes sense given what we've seen here?

CROWDER: Well, I'm sure it's a tough call for his boss, Admiral Scott Swift, who's the commander of the Pacific Fleet. I note that Admiral Swift is, in fact, a former 7th Fleet commander as well. I was somewhat surprised by it. But, you know, that's a tough call that the commanders have to make, as the United States Navy is well-known for its accountability.

GREENE: You were in this same job - right? - I mean, as commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet. Knowing that job so well, are there things that someone could have done differently in that job to prevent these accidents?

CROWDER: I don't know what has happened at the 7th Fleet commander level. I've not talked to Admiral Aucoin. That's kind of our tradition. We don't interfere in jobs we used to have.

GREENE: (Laughter) Your predecessor doesn't - you don't put pressure or offer advice to each other.

CROWDER: Yeah. I don't call and give advice from the sidelines. And so - you know, I don't know what the dynamic was there. You know, there's a carrier strike group commander that reports to the 7th Fleet commander. And there is a destroyer squadron commander who reports to that carrier strike commander. And those commanding officers of these ships work for that destroyer commander.

GREENE: So I'm sure the Navy is trying to figure out exactly what happened and who might have been responsible. But looking at this broadly, I mean, it's just hard to imagine that these four accidents are a coincidence, right? I mean, is this - could this be a matter of readiness somehow - or training?

CROWDER: Well, you know, I think four - three collisions and a grounding in nine months kind of puts coincidence into the lower percentage of explanations. And that's why the chief of naval operations John Richardson has tasked Four-star Admiral Phil Davidson, our commander of Fleet Forces Command, to do a comprehensive review - to look beyond what happened in this particular case but to look at how we train ships, particularly out in the 7th Fleet, and personnel sort of policies, the high operation tempo that they have. Do the commanders have so much on their plate that they don't have, you know, sufficient time and bandwidth to focus on the basic training inside the lifelines of a particular ship?

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, just listening to you bring up some of these issues, does acknowledging those kinds of problems might exist compromise our ability to project power in the Pacific, a place where I think about, you know, the disputed South China Sea and other really tough issues? Is this a real - is it an embarrassment? Is it is a problem in terms of U.S. power?

CROWDER: Well, is it embarrassment? Yeah, probably. You know, there's a lot of column inches on the Navy here this past year. But in the end, it's about the mission. And if there are changes that need to be made, I have confidence that the Navy and particularly this comprehensive review to be done by Admiral Davidson - they're going to peel the onion.

They're going to get to the issues. And again, not just what happened in this particular case - we'll get to that, obviously - but systemic issues that need to be corrected. And we're still able to do that mission. We've got two of our guided missile destroyers out there out of commission. And if need be - if commanders need - need be, we'll surge forward a couple to take their place until they're back online.

GREENE: Retired Admiral Douglas Crowder is a former commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, speaking to us via Skype about these accidents involving U.S. Navy ships. Thank you so much for your time this morning. We really appreciate it.

CROWDER: OK, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.