Command of Navy’s largest destroyer squadron changes hands in Japan
Stars and Stripes November 17, 2023
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Sheets of rain blew in from Tokyo Bay on Friday and punctuated speakers’ remarks as command of the Navy’s largest destroyer squadron passed to its deputy commodore.
Capt. Justin Harts relieved Capt. Walter Mainor as commander of Destroyer Squadron 15 and Task Force 71 during a ceremony on the aft deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins.
The task force represents the U.S. 7th Fleet’s primary battle force in the Indo-Pacific, with around 3,000 sailors and nine Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis Combat System under its command.
The squadron also routinely deploys as escorts alongside the USS Ronald Reagan and the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group.
“The truth of the matter is, if something does go wrong in the Indo-Pacific, these are the men that get the call,” Rear Adm. Pat Hannifin, commander of Task Force 70 and the Ronald Reagan Strike Group, said during the ceremony.
The ceremony mirrored Mainor’s own change of command on a similarly rainy day in August 2022.
Since then, Mainor has overseen 27 freedom-of-navigation operations by the squadron’s warships and 24 transits of the Taiwan Strait, high-visibility events criticized by China.
The Navy routinely sends warships through the 110-mile-wide strait that separates Taiwan from mainland China, usually to move between the South China and East China seas.
The service also often sends warships to contested regions, such as the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, two archipelagos in the South China Sea claimed by surrounding nations. The Navy’s stated goal for such missions is ensuring the right to innocent passage.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters, and views both types of operations as provocative and a danger to the peace and stability of the region.
Mainor, however, feels the situation is improving, thanks to the United States’ close ties with other nations.
“I feel we’re in a better place and I feel we’re still making strides,” he told Stars and Stripes after the ceremony. “We continue to have communication and work with our allies and partners; and that will continue; we will not be deterred.”
Mainor is set to head for Washington D.C., where he’ll work with the Navy’s diversity, equity and inclusion task force, squadron spokesman Lt. j.g. Ronan Williams told Stars and Stripes after the ceremony.
Harts, of San Diego, was previously the squadron deputy commodore and also commanded one of its destroyers, USS Benfold.
Other assignments he’s held in the region include a tour as communications officer and assistant chief engineer aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald and Carrier Strike Group Seven’s flag secretary aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.
“The biggest change I’ve seen over the last almost 20 years is the integration of so many nations that are out here,” Harts told Stars and Stripes after the ceremony. “Not just the traditional players, like Canada, Australia or Japan, but an ever-increasing footprint from the U.K., New Zealand, Italy, France, Germany, NATO countries that want to be out here.”
Those nations aren’t looking for a fight in the region, Harts added, but along with the U.S. instead hope to maintain the “peace, dedication to international law and a rules-based order.”
Harts graduated with bachelor’s in transportation and logistics from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1998 and holds a master’s in system engineering and analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master’s in national security strategy from the National War College, according to his Navy biography.