U.S. Navy suspends sea search efforts for missing USS McCain sailors

Royal Malaysian Navy personnel carry a body onto their ship during a search and rescue operation for survivors of the USS John McCain ship collision in Malaysian waters in this undated handout released August 22, 2017. Royal Malaysian Navy Handout via REUTERS

By Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Thursday suspended wider search and rescue operations for sailors missing after the warship USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel in waters near Singapore and Malaysia earlier this week.

A statement on the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s website confirmed the identities of one sailor killed and of nine sailors still missing following the collision.

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers will continue search-and-recovery efforts inside flooded sailors, the statement said.

“After more than 80 hours of multinational search efforts, the U.S. Navy suspended search and rescue efforts for missing USS John S. McCain sailors in an approximately 2,100-square mile area east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” it said.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia had been looking for the missing sailors over an area of about 5,500 square kilometers around the crash site.

The U.S. Navy on Tuesday found remains of missing sailors inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the John S. McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

Earlier on Thursday, the Navy said a medical examination of human remains found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site were not one of its missing sailors.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said the multi-agency search and rescue operation was suspended from 9 p.m. local time on Thursday. Singapore will continue to support the U.S. Navy in their search on the warship, it said.

The pre-dawn collision on Monday was the fourth major accident for the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year and has prompted a review of its operations.

The Navy on Wednesday removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from his post, citing “a loss of confidence in his ability to command” after the run of accidents. Aucoin had been due to step down next month. Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer takes command of the fleet.

This week, the U.S. Navy flagged plans for temporary and staggered halts in operations across its global fleet to allow staff to focus on safety.

On Wednesday, Seventh Fleet ships deployed at a facility in Yokosuka, Japan, participated in a one-day operational pause in which officers and crew underwent fresh risk management and communications training.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has about 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan; Writing by Sam Holmes; Editing by Robert Birsel/Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Navy relieves Seventh Fleet commander in wake of collisions in Asia

FILE PHOTO: Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander, speaks to media on the status of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, and the seven missing Fitzgerald crew members, at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File photo

By Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly

WASHINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Wednesday said it had removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin after a series of collisions involving its warships in Asia as the search goes on for 10 sailors missing since the latest mishap.

Aucoin’s removal comes after a pre-dawn collision between a guided-missile destroyer and a merchant vessel east of Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, the fourth major incident in the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year.

“Admiral Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” the U.S. Navy said in a press release.

Swift, who traveled to Japan to relieve Aucoin, ordered his deputy Pacific Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, to immediately take command of the powerful U.S. force.

Aucoin was due to step down next month, with Sawyer, a submariner by trade, already slated to succeed him. Aucoin came up through the Navy’s air wing as an F-14 navigator.

“I support Admiral Swift’s decision to bring in new leadership. The new Seventh Fleet Commander must help move his team forward, focusing efforts on safe and effective operations,” U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said in a statement.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has around 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

It operates over an area of 124 million square km (48 million square miles) from bases in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

TENSE TIMES

The accident involving the USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC in the Singapore Strait came at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia.

This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the contested waters.

An official Chinese newspaper said on Tuesday the U.S. navy’s latest collision shows it is becoming an increasing risk to shipping in Asia despite its claims of helping to protect freedom of navigation.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

“Losing another ship now is bad timing. It may raise concern over America’s defensive capabilities and it could send the wrong signal to North Korea and China,” a senior Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force officer said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia is looking for the 10 U.S. sailors missing since Monday’s collision.

On Tuesday, U.S. Navy and Marine Divers found human remains inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the USS John S McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. The Navy has not yet announced the identities of the bodies discovered.

The U.S. Navy is also working to identify a body found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site. Photos posted on the Twitter account of a Malaysian navy frigate on Wednesday showed crew carrying what appeared to be a body to a U.S. Navy helicopter.

The latest collision has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in U.S. Navy operations.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

(Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO, writing by Sam Holmes and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Himani Sarkar)

U.S. divers find remains of missing sailors in hull of damaged destroyer

The damaged USS John McCain is docked next to USS America at Changi Naval Base in Singapore August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Calvin Wong

By Karishma Singh and Fathin Ungku

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers on Tuesday found some remains of missing sailors inside sections of a U.S. guided-missile destroyer that collided with a merchant vessel near Singapore, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said.

The USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC collided on Monday while the U.S. ship was approaching Singapore on a routine port call. The impact tore a hole in the warship’s port side at the waterline, flooding compartments that included a crew sleeping area.

U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift said an international search-and-rescue operation had found some remains and that the wider search for 10 sailors missing from the accident would continue until all hope was exhausted.

“The divers were able to locate some remains in those sealed compartments during their search,” Swift told reporters at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base where the USS John S McCain is docked for damage assessment.

“Additionally, the Malaysian authorities have reported that they have located potential remains. They are working to confirm and identify those remains.”

He did not specify how many remains had been found.

The Malaysian navy said in a statement it had found a body eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site and it would transfer it to the U.S. Navy on Wednesday.

Swift also said Monday’s collision – the fourth major accident in the U.S. Pacific fleet this year – could not be viewed in isolation from other incidents and that investigations were seeking to find a “common cause at the root of these events”.

The John S. McCain’s sister ship, the Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after colliding with a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven U.S. sailors were found in a flooded berthing area after that collision.

The latest accident has already prompted a fleet-wide investigation and plans for temporary halts in operations.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said to have sailors killed in two collisions this year was disconcerting.

“It’s just unacceptable and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Pence told Fox News. “But right now our hearts are with the families of those that are lost and we honor them.”

Ships, aircraft and divers from an international search-and-rescue operation have been looking for the missing U.S. sailors to the east of Singapore and peninsula Malaysia, near where the accident happened.

Aircraft from the amphibious assault ship the USS America, which was in port at Changi Naval Base, joined the search.

Earlier on Tuesday, divers equipped with surface-supplied air rigs got into compartments in damaged parts of the USS John S McCain.

Immediate efforts by the ship’s crew after the collision on Monday were able to halt flooding into other parts of the hull, the Seventh Fleet said in a statement on its website.

CNN, citing unidentified U.S. Navy officials, said early indications suggested the collision was caused by a steering malfunction as the warship approached the Strait of Malacca. Swift said it was too early to draw conclusions about the cause and whether it was the result of human error.

Aircraft and vessels from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have been helping with the search.

HOLE IN HULL

Swift said the U.S. Navy was sending a team to assess the damage before making a decision whether to move the ship or place it in drydock.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said it had deployed 250 personnel for the search-and-rescue effort over an expanded area of 2,620 square kilometers. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said it had deployed more than 500.

Five U.S. sailors were injured in the accident, although the U.S. Navy said none of those injuries was life-threatening.

On Monday, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said there were no indications so far the collision was intentional or the result of cyber intrusion or sabotage.

“But review will consider all possibilities,” he said on Twitter.

Richardson said he was asking his fleet commanders worldwide for a one-to-two-day, staggered “operational pause” to discuss action to ensure safe and effective operations.

He also said a comprehensive review would examine the training of U.S. forces deployed to Japan. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is headquartered in Japan.

The accident comes at a tense time for the U.S. Navy in Asia. This month, the John S. McCain sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, the latest “freedom of navigation” operation to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the waters.

The state-run China Daily said in an editorial that increased activities by U.S. warships in Asia-Pacific were a growing risk to commercial shipping.

Also this month, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam in a standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

(Writing by Sam Holmes; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE and David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

Ten sailors missing after U.S. warship, tanker collide near Singapore

Damage is seen on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain after a collision, in Singapore waters in this still frame taken from video August 21, 2017.

By Fathin Ungku and Masayuki Kitano

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Ten sailors are missing after a U.S. warship collided with an oil tanker east of Singapore before dawn on Monday, tearing a hole beneath the waterline and flooding compartments that include a crew sleeping area, the U.S. Navy said.

The collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain and the tanker Alnic MC was the second involving a U.S. Navy destroyer and a merchant vessels in Asian waters in little more than two months.

The ships collided while the U.S. warship was heading to Singapore for a routine port call, the Navy said in a statement.

“Initial reports indicate John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side aft,” the Navy said. “There are currently 10 sailors missing and five injured.”

The destroyer had made its way to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base by Monday afternoon under its own power.

Significant damage to the hull had resulted in flooding to compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms, the Navy said, but crew members were able to stop the flooding.

A map shows the location where the Alnic MC merchant vessel came to a halt after a collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain east of Singapore August 21, 2017. REUTERS

A map shows the location where the Alnic MC merchant vessel came to a halt after a collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain east of Singapore August 21, 2017. REUTERS

Four of the injured were taken by helicopter to hospital in Singapore with non-life threatening injuries. The fifth needed no further treatment.

The USS John S. McCain’s sister ship, the USS Fitzgerald, almost sank off the coast of Japan after it was struck by a Philippine container ship on June 17. The bodies of seven USS Fitzgerald sailors were found in a flooded berthing area.

Collisions between warships and other large vessels are extremely rare, with naval historians going back more than 50 years to find a similar incident.

A search-and-rescue mission was under way for the sailors missing from the USS John S. McCain involving Singaporean ships, helicopters and tugs, as well as U.S. Navy aircraft.

Reuters video footage from the Singapore Strait showed an area of impact about 6 meters (20 ft) wide in the John S. McCain’s port side.

The U.S. Navy later said amphibious assault ship USS America had arrived to provide messing and berthing for crew of the USS John S. McCain. It would also provide support for the search of the missing and divers to assess the damage.

 

TERRITORIAL DISPUTE

A crew member on the Alnic MC told Reuters by telephone there was no oil spill from the Liberian-flagged, 183 meter-long (600 ft) tanker, which was carrying almost 12,000 tonnes of fuel oil from Taiwan to discharge in Singapore.

“We have not discharged the tanker yet,” said the crew member, who asked not to be identified.

“We are proceeding to Raffles Reserved Anchorage, where the owners will investigate the matter. There was some damage to the valve but no oil spill.”

Stealth Maritime Corporation, the Greece-based owner of the tanker, said the vessel was moving to safe anchorage for assessment. Reuters later saw the Alnic MC anchored off Singapore.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) said no injuries were reported on the Alnic, which suffered some damage above the waterline.

“There is no report of oil pollution and traffic in the Singapore Strait is unaffected,” the MPA said, adding that the collision happened in Singaporean territorial waters.

However, the Malaysian navy said the collision happened in Malaysian waters and it had sent vessels to assist.

The Pedra Branca area near where the collision happened has long been contested by both countries, with an international court ruling in Singapore’s favor in 2008. Malaysia filed an application to review that ruling this year.

“The Malaysian agencies are not involved in the search and rescue operations that is led by Singapore,” the MPA said.

The U.S. Navy said Malaysian navy vessels and a helicopter joined the search in the afternoon. Indonesia said it had sent two aircraft and two warships to help.

The waterways around Singapore are some of the busiest and most important in the world, carrying about a third of global shipping trade.

Ben Stewart, commercial manager of Maritime Asset Security and Training in Singapore, said early indications suggested the warship may have turned across the front of the tanker.

“Instances like this should be rare and they are rare,” Stewart said.

The U.S. Navy said last week it had removed the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor on the USS Fitzgerald following an investigation into that collision.

 

SISTER SHIPS

The USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, built in the same shipyard, are both ballistic missile defense (BMD) capable ships and part of the same Japan-based destroyer squadron. The Seventh Fleet has six ships assigned to BMD patrols, with half on patrol at any time.

The accidents come at a tense time.

The USS John S. McCain carried out a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea this month, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China.

The operation was the latest to counter what the United States sees as China’s efforts to control the waters. China denounced it.

North Korea threatened last week to fire ballistic missiles towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea threatened the United States.

“Thoughts &; prayers are w/ our US Navy sailors aboard the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway,” Trump said on Twitter.

The U.S. vessel involved in the latest collision is named for the father and grandfather of U.S. Republican Senator John McCain, who were both admirals.

Senator McCain, a Vietnam War naval pilot who was shot down and held prisoner for five-and-a-half years, is undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

“Cindy  and I are keeping America’s sailors aboard the USS John S McCain in our prayers tonight – appreciate the work of search and rescue crews,” he said on Twitter, referring to his wife.

 

 

 

(Reporting by Fathin Ungku and Masayuki Kitano; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein and Jessica Jaganathan, Aradhana Aravindan, Karishma Singh and Sam Holmes in SINGAPORE, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Joseph Sipalan and Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR, Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA, and Lesley Wroughton in WASHINGTON; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

 

Exclusive: U.S. destroyer challenges China’s claims in South China Sea

FILE PHOTO - The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain approaches the aircraft carrier USS George Washington for a fueling at sea in this December 5, 2010 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cheng S. Yang/Handout

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The operation came as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS John S. McCain traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.

It was the third “freedom of navigation operation” or “fonop” conducted during Trump’s presidency. Neither China’s defense ministry nor its foreign ministry immediately responded to a request for comment.

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea.

Tensions have risen recently after North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year and two ICBM tests last month, prompting a strong round of U.N. sanctions which angered Pyongyang who threatened to teach the United States a “severe lesson”.

Trump in turn responded by warning North Korea it would face “fire and fury” if it further threatened the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a stark warning to North Korea on Wednesday, telling Pyongyang that it should stop any actions that would lead to the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.

In July, a U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam.

Experts and officials have criticized President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Chinese jets intercept U.S. surveillance plane: U.S. officials

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries signals reconnaissance aircraft, escorted by an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, performs a flyby over aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Gulf April 24, 2016. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bobby J Siens/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the East China Sea at the weekend, with one jet coming within about 300 feet (91 meters) of the American aircraft, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial reports showed one of the Chinese J-10 aircraft came close enough to the U.S. EP-3 plane on Sunday to cause the American aircraft to change direction.

One of the officials said the Chinese jet was armed and the interception happened 80 nautical miles (148 km) from the Chinese city of Qingdao.

The Pentagon said the encounter between the aircraft was unsafe, but added that the vast majority of interactions were safe.

China’s Defence Ministry said the actions of its pilots were “legal, necessary and professional” and performed “in accordance with the law and the rules”.

“Close-in reconnaissance by U.S. aircraft threatens China’s national security, harms Sino-U.S. maritime and air military safety, endangers the personal safety of both sides’ pilots and is the root cause of unexpected incidents,” it said.

The United States should immediately stop these military activities, which are unsafe, unprofessional and unfriendly, it added.

Incidents such as Sunday’s intercept are relatively common.

In May, two Chinese SU-30 aircraft intercepted a U.S. aircraft designed to detect radiation while it was flying in international air space over the East China Sea.

China closely monitors any U.S. military activity around its coastline.

In 2001, an intercept of a U.S. spy plane by a Chinese fighter jet resulted in a collision that killed the Chinese pilot and forced the American plane to make an emergency landing at a base on Hainan.

The 24 U.S. air crew members were held for 11 days until Washington apologized for the incident. That encounter soured U.S.-Chinese relations in the early days of President George W. Bush’s first term in office.

Separately, the Pentagon said the U.S. military would soon carry out another test of it’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

“These tests are done as a routine measure to ensure that the system is ready and… they are scheduled well in advance of any other real world geopolitical events going on,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.

The director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, said in a statement that a test would be carried out at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska.

Last month the United States shot down a simulated, incoming intermediate-range ballistic missile similar to the ones being developed by countries like North Korea, in a test of the nation’s THAAD missile defenses.

The United States deployed THAAD to South Korea this year to guard against North Korea’s shorter-range missiles. That has drawn fierce criticism from China, which says the system’s powerful radar can penetrate deep into its territory.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. Navy chief asks Chinese counterpart for help on North Korea

Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson poses after speaking to reporters on the pier of the USS Coronado, a littoral combat ship, at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore, May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Himani Sarkar

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy’s top officer asked his Chinese counterpart to exert influence on North Korea to help rein in its advancing nuclear and missile programs, a U.S. official said on Thursday.

Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson spoke with his Chinese counterpart Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong via a video teleconference.

“Richardson voiced his concern about the nuclear and missile programs and emphasized that China should use its unique influence over North Korea,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The call lasted for an hour and the two talked about the need to “work together to address the provocative and unacceptable military behavior by North Korea,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement.

Last month U.S. President Donald Trump said Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea had failed.

Trump has hoped for greater help from China to exert influence over North Korea, leaning heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders had a high-profile summit in Florida in April and Trump has frequently praised Xi while resisting criticism of Chinese trade practices.

North Korea recently said it conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and that it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile.

The United States has remained technically at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The past six decades have been punctuated by periodic rises in antagonism as well as rhetoric that has stopped short of a resumption of active hostilities.

Tensions rose sharply after North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests last year and carried out a steady stream of ballistic missile tests.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Seven sailors missing after U.S. Navy destroyer collides with container ship in Japan

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, damaged by colliding with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, arrives at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Toru Hanai and Megumi Lim

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) – U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald sailed back to its base in Yokosuka, with seven of its sailors still missing after it collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship more than three times its size in eastern Japan early on Saturday.

The Fitzgerald, an Aegis guided missile destroyer, collided with the merchant vessel at about 2:30 a.m. local time (1730 GMT), some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka, the Navy said.

Three aboard the destroyer had been medically evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, including the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition, the Navy said. The other two were being treated for lacerations and bruises, while other injured were being assessed aboard the ship, it said.

Search and rescue efforts by U.S. and Japanese aircraft and surface vessels were continuing for the seven missing sailors, the Navy said. Their names are being withheld until the families have been notified, it said.

Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.

UNCLEAR WHAT HAPPENED

It was unclear how the collision happened. “Once an investigation is complete then any legal issues can be addressed,” the 7th Fleet spokesman said.

The Fitzgerald suffered damage on her starboard side above and below the waterline, causing “significant damage” and flooding to two berthing spaces and other areas of the ship, the Navy said. The flooding was later stabilized, but it was uncertain how long it would take to gain access to those spaces once the ship is docked, to continue the search for the missing, it said.

Back in Yokosuka, divers will inspect the damage and develop a plan for repairs, the Navy said.

The ship was able to operate under its own power with limited propulsion, the Navy said. The Japanese Coast Guard said separately the Fitzgerald was towed back to Yokosuka by a tugboat at about 3 knots.

Part of an eight-ship squadron based in Yokosuka, the Fitzgerald had in February completed $21 million worth of upgrades and repairs.

Japan’s Nippon Yusen KK, which charters the container ship, ASX Crystal, said in a statement it would “cooperate fully” with the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident. At around 29,000 tons displacement, the ship dwarfs the 8,315-ton U.S. warship, and was carrying 1,080 containers from the port of Nagoya to Tokyo.

None of the 20 crew members aboard the container ship, all Filipino, were injured, and the ship was not leaking oil, Nippon Yusen said. The ship arrived at Tokyo Bay around 5:00 p.m. (0800 GMT), sailing under its own power, the Coast Guard said.

BUSY WATERWAYS

The waterways approaching Tokyo Bay are busy with commercial vessels sailing to and from Japan’s two biggest container ports in Tokyo and Yokohama.

International maritime rules for collision avoidance do not define right of way for any one vessel, but provide common standards for signaling between ships, as well as regulations on posting lookouts.

Japan’s public broadcaster NHK showed aerial footage of the Fitzgerald, which had a large dent on its right, or starboard, side. Images broadcast by NHK showed it had been struck next to its Aegis radar arrays behind the vertical launch tubes.

Such incidents are rare.

In May, the U.S. Navy’s USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel but both ships were able to operate under their own power.

The 7th Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, thanked the Japanese Coast guard in a post on the fleet’s Facebook page, adding: “We are committed to ensuring the safe return of the ship to port in Yokosuka.”

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart in Washington; Tim Kelly, Linda Sieg, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo, Raju Gopalakrishnan in Manila, Chizu Nomiyama in New York; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

In first under Trump, U.S. warship challenges Beijing’s claims in South China Sea

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea May 6, 2017. Picture taken May 6, 2017. Kryzentia Weiermann/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

China said its warships had warned the U.S. ship and it lodged “stern representations” with the United States. China said it remained resolutely opposed to so-called freedom of navigation operations.

The U.S. patrol, the first of its kind since October, marked the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in ally North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline.

One U.S. official said it was the first operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement.

U.S. allies and partners in the region had grown anxious as the Trump administration held off on carrying out South China Sea operations during its first few months in office.

Last month, top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Harry Harris, said the United States would likely carry out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea soon.

Still, the U.S. military has a long-standing position that the operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

“We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement.

The Pentagon gave no details of the latest mission.

‘ERRANT WAYS’

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly briefing two Chinese guided-missile warships had warned the U.S. vessel to leave the waters, and China had complained to the United States.

“The U.S. side’s errant ways have caused damage to the improving situation in the South China Sea, and are not conducive to peace and stability,” Ren said.

Ren was referring to a recent of easing of tension between China and other claimants, in particular the Philippines.

China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea, which sees about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade pass every year, are challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said such patrols were “very likely to cause unexpected sea and air accidents”.

Under the previous U.S. administration, the Navy conducted several such voyages through the South China Sea. The last operation was approved by then-President Barack Obama.

The latest U.S. patrol is likely to exacerbate U.S.-China tensions that had eased since Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit in Florida resort last month.

Trump lambasted China during the 2016 presidential campaign, accusing it of stealing U.S. jobs with unfair trade policies, manipulating its currency and militarizing parts of the South China Sea.

In December, after winning office, he upended protocol by taking a call from the president of self-ruled Taiwan, which China regards as its own sacred territory.

But since meeting Xi, Trump has praised him for efforts to restrain North Korea, though it has persisted with ballistic missile tests.

U.S.-based South China Sea expert Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the operation was the first conducted by the United States close to an artificial feature built by China not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.

Previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other features in the Spratlys built up by China, but both of those features are entitled to a territorial sea.

Mischief Reef was not entitled to a territorial sea as it was underwater at high tide before it was built up by China and was not close enough to another feature entitled to such a territorial sea, said Poling.

He said the key question was whether the U.S. warship had engaged in a real challenge to the Chinese claims by turning on radar or launching a helicopter or boat – actions not permitted in a territorial sea under international law.

Otherwise, critics say, the operation would have resembled what is known as “innocent passage” and could have reinforced rather than challenged China’s claim to a territorial limit around the reef.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Additional reporting and writing by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)

Trump-backed Navy expansion would boost costs some $400 billion over 30 years: study

FILE PHOTO - Sailors man the rails of the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as it departs its home port in San Diego, California August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Expanding the U.S. Navy to 355 ships as recommended by military leaders and backed by President Donald Trump would cost some $400 billion more over the next 30 years than the currently planned 308-ship fleet, according to a study released on Monday.

The annual cost to build, crew and operate a 355-ship fleet would be about $102 billion, or 13 percent more than the $90 billion needed for the currently planned Navy, according to the study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The $102 billion cost of the 355-ship fleet is 33 percent more than Congress appropriated in 2016 for the current 275-ship Navy, the CBO said.

To achieve the larger force, the Navy would need $26.6 billion annually for ship construction, which is 60 percent more than the average amount that Congress has appropriated for shipbuilding in the past 30 years, the CBO study said.

The Navy’s 2017 shipbuilding plan called for boosting the size of the fleet to 308 ships, which was expected to cost $21.2 billion per year to implement over 30 years.

With Trump pressing for an expansion of the fleet to 350 ships during the presidential campaign last year, the Navy released a new force structure assessment in December seeking a 355-ship Navy.

Taking into consideration older ships being retired, creating a 355-ship fleet would require the Navy to buy about 329 new ships over 30 years, compared with 254 under its previous plan for a 308-ship fleet, the CBO study found. The Navy would have to buy about 12 ships per year under the larger fleet plan, versus about eight per year under the earlier plan.

The larger fleet would require more civilian and uniformed personnel and more aircraft, pushing up overall operating costs, the CBO said.

The increase in shipbuilding would force all seven U.S. shipyards to expand their work forces and improve their infrastructure in order to meet the demand for vessels, the CBO said. The greatest challenge would be building submarines to meet the force structure requirements, the report said.

The study said the earliest the Navy could achieve a 355-ship fleet would be the year 2035, or 18 years from now.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Bill Trott)