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Collision shows US Navy's fatigue

The second damaged destroyer puts a serious dent in Asia's maritime security

The USS John S. McCain's collision with an oil tanker near Singapore weakened America's naval forces in the area.   © Reuters

TOKYO The collision Aug. 21 between a U.S. Navy destroyer and an oil tanker near Singapore removed another American warship from duty in Asian waters, dealing a serious blow to American efforts to maintain stability in the region.

The USS John S. McCain, equipped with the Aegis guided-missile combat system, suffered damage to the left rear portion of its hull in the collision near the Strait of Malacca. In June, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, a fellow member of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, collided with a container ship off southeastern Japan.

Ten sailors were killed in the collision, and five were injured. The damage appeared lighter than the Fitzgerald's, but was enough to knock the McCain out of service for repairs.

Both the McCain and the Fitzgerald are Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the most prevalent in the U.S. Navy, which has over 60 such vessels, all of them built since the late 1980s. Their duties include defending ships such as aircraft carriers, shooting down ballistic missiles using an onboard missile defense system, and dealing with pirates.

The 7th Fleet, based at Yokosuka near Tokyo, operates over a vast area stretching from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. It plays an increasingly important role in maintaining regional stability by keeping an eye on North Korea, China and Russia.

But U.S. defense spending, which swelled considerably due to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, began to decrease under President Barack Obama. Hit by budget cuts, the Navy has not been able to increase its capacity to operate its aircraft carriers, patrol ships and destroyers to keep up with the growing workload.

Recent reports point to lapses in vigilance on the part of Fitzgerald crewmen in the June collision. No cause has been attributed yet for the McCain's crash, but it could be that fatigue is opening up cracks in U.S. naval forces.

Before the Aug. 21 collision, the McCain had been sailing near the Spratly Islands, a disputed group of islands in the South China Sea, as part of freedom of navigation operations aimed at countering China's territorial claims in the region.

It was the third time such operations have been conducted under the Trump administration. "The U.S. military's superiority has eroded rapidly to the point where it had no choice but to repeat the same operations," according to a source well versed in Japanese national security.

When the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was hurriedly dispatched from near Singapore to near the Korean Peninsula last April to rein in Pyongyang, it navigated between islands of Indonesia and the Philippines on its way north in order to avoid passing through the South China Sea. It is possible that it chose this route to avoid Chinese submarines, which would have tried to hinder its passage.

The harsh reality is that the 7th Fleet now has fewer vessels it can deploy, though the seriousness will depend in part on when the eastern Pacific-based 3rd Fleet sends destroyers for support, and how many. Calls for Japan to play a greater role in defense will likely grow louder. Military forces in China, North Korea, Russia and elsewhere are no doubt gloating over the U.S. military's latest self-inflicted wound.

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