WASHINGTON — One day after ordering a rare suspension of ship operations worldwide, the Navy plans to relieve the commander of the fleet that has suffered four collisions in Asia and the deaths of more than a dozen sailors this year, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, the head of the 7th Fleet, is expected to be removed Wednesday, the official said.
Aucoin had been expected to retire in the coming weeks, but his superiors pushed up his departure date after losing confidence in his leadership. The action was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Navy officials declined to comment Tuesday night. But Adm. Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was flying from Singapore to the 7th Fleet headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan, where he is expected to relieve Aucoin.
Aucoin, a highly decorated fighter pilot, has commanded the fleet since September 2015.
The admiral’s removal would come as the Navy is preparing to conduct a rare suspension of ship operations worldwide for a day or two in the next week to review safety and operational procedures. More broadly, Navy officials are also investigating the role that training, manning and crew communications may have played in the collisions.
Divers have found remains of missing U.S. sailors in the flooded compartments of the Navy destroyer John S. McCain, which collided with an oil tanker Monday off Singapore, Swift said.
He declined to say how many bodies had been located in the ship, which is docked at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. He also said that the Malaysian navy, which was part of the search effort, had reported recovering a body at sea that might be one of the 10 missing sailors.
“We have discovered other bodies during the diving on the McCain today,” Swift said at a news conference, held within sight of the damaged ship. “But it is premature to say how many or what the status of the recovery of those bodies is.”
The body found by the Malaysian navy was being handed over to the Americans for identification.
Ships and aircraft from five nations were searching for the sailors near the site of the collision, in waters claimed by both Malaysia and Singapore. Each of those two countries claimed to be leading the search effort at sea, which included ships and planes from the United States, Indonesia and Australia.
Swift said the search at sea would continue despite the discovery of remains in the ship. “The focus of the United States Pacific Fleet is our 10 missing sailors and their families,” he said. “We are always hopeful there are survivors.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the White House issued a statement expressing “great sadness” over the deaths of the sailors aboard the McCain. “As the Navy begins the process of recovering our fallen sailors, our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends,” the statement said.
The collision was the second in two months involving a destroyer from the Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan.
In June, the destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan. Soon afterward, searchers found the bodies of seven missing sailors in its flooded berthing compartments.
After the collision Monday, Adm. John Richardson, the Navy’s top officer, announced that all 277 Navy ships worldwide would take an “operational pause” to review basic seamanship, teamwork and other “fundamentals.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that an inquiry into the collision had already begun. “We obviously have an investigation underway, and that will determine what happened,” he said.
At his news conference Tuesday, Swift discounted suggestions that the crew of the McCain had been overworked or underprepared. He said the crew responded quickly after the collision, righted the ship and prevented an even bigger disaster.
“I was on the McCain this morning and looking at the eyes of those sailors, and even after their heroic efforts yesterday, I didn’t see exhaustion,” he said. “I didn’t see a crew that was taking a knee, so to speak. They are on their game.”
The admiral said there were no signs of failure in the ship’s steering system or of a cyberattack, two possibilities that had been mentioned in news reports.
But he noted that the investigation was in its earliest stages and said, “We are not taking any consideration off the table.”
The destroyer is named after John S. McCain Sr. and John S. McCain Jr., Navy admirals who were the grandfather and father of Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
In Washington, McCain, who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement endorsing the operational pause.
“I agree with Admiral Richardson that more forceful action is urgently needed to identify and correct the causes of the recent ship collisions,” he said. “Our sailors who risk their lives every day, in combat and in training, deserve no less.”
James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral who commanded U.S. forces in Europe and Latin America, said the pause “makes sense, but it comes at a challenging time operationally.”
“The pause gives everyone a chance to stop the day-to-day operations, review training manuals, run drills to respond to crisis, study the specifics of previous collisions, rest and recuperate from the tempo of operations,” Stavridis said.
The Navy declined to confirm names of the missing sailors, but, by Tuesday, some of their relatives had begun to identify them.
Jacob Drake, 21, of North Lewisburg, Ohio, was among the missing, according to a cousin, Brandie Roberts. “We are all having a very difficult time not knowing where he is or what has happened,” Roberts, 27, said in a Facebook message, adding that her family was “refusing” to lose hope. Roberts said he had last spoken with Drake last week.
Family members of Logan Palmer, an interior communications electrician petty officer 3rd class who was from Illinois, said in a statement released by the Navy that they, too, were awaiting “word from the Navy on our son Logan.”
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said he had spoken with the Palmer family and would monitor the Navy’s investigation into the crash.
And Darryl Smith, the father of Kenneth Smith, an electronics technician petty officer 3rd class, said in a separate statement provided by the Navy that he was waiting for news about his son. “I appreciate the courageous work of the crew in the aftermath of the collision and the ongoing rescue efforts,” Smith said.
The collision between the McCain and the Alnic MC, a Liberian-registered tanker about three times its size, occurred east of Singapore.
Andrew Tan, the chief executive of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, said that about 250 people from various Singapore agencies were involved in the search.
“This incident took place in Singapore waters, and MPA continues to lead the search and rescue efforts,” Tan told reporters Tuesday. “So everyone is working closely together to make sure that we spare no effort in terms of searching for the unaccounted for.”
But in Malaysia, Zulkifli Abu Bakar, the director general of the Maritime Enforcement Agency, said the collision had occurred in his country’s waters, at the highly congested entrance to the Singapore and Malacca straits. He said 80,000 ships a year pass through the area.
“It is in our waters, so we are leading the SAR operations,” he said Monday, using an abbreviation for search and rescue.
He said any territorial dispute was secondary to the search effort. “We do not want to have another collision,” he said. “For the time being, I don’t think we should argue about whose waters, because I think the most important thing is to focus on the search and rescue effort.”
Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Richard C. Paddock from Singapore. Jess Bidgood contributed reporting from Boston.