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Navy relieves two more commanders in 7th Fleet after deadly collisions

By TYLER HLAVAC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2017

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy relieved two more commanders in 7th Fleet on Monday amid fallout from two deadly collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain.

Task Force 70 commander Rear Adm. Charles Williams and Destroyer Squadron 15 commander Capt. Jeffrey Bennett were both relieved of command by 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer “due to a loss of confidence in their ability to command,” the Navy announced in a Monday statement.

As both the CTF 70 and Carrier Strike Group 5 commander, Williams had tactical control of 7th Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers, as well as Carrier Air Wing 5 and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

Williams assumed command of CTF 70 in July 2016 from Rear Adm. John Alexander, who has since been promoted to vice admiral and took command of the U.S. 3rd Fleet on Friday.

As DESRON 15 commander, Bennett oversaw all destroyers assigned to 7th Fleet. He assumed command of DESRON 15 last year in September.

Williams and Bennett were relieved following the removal of 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin last month, also due to loss of confidence.

All three commanders were relieved following a string of accidents involving Navy ships in the Pacific.

In January, the USS Antietam ran aground and spilled roughly 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid into Tokyo Bay. In May, the USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat while operating off the east coast of the divided peninsula. In June, a collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine-flagged merchant ship killed seven sailors. Last month, a collision between the USS John S. McCain and a civilian merchant vessel killed 10 sailors.

The commanding officers of the Antietam and Fitzgerald were relieved of their duties.

Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, who was serving as commander of 7th Fleet’s amphibious forces, has now taken command of CTF 70. DESRON 15’s deputy commander, Capt. Jonathan Duffy, has assumed command of the squadron.

Also on Monday, Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, head of Naval Surface Forces, asked to retire in April rather than next summer, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report. His decision was based “upon my recognition of the need for new leadership in the Surface Forces,” Rowden said in a statement, according to the report.

“The way ahead requires broad and bold transformation, and is deserving of stimulating change from the top-down,” said Rowden, who is in Yokosuka this week. “I felt it appropriate to provide the chief of naval operations with the time for due diligence in finding the proper relief. I remain fully committed to improving the readiness of the Surface Force, providing continuity of leadership and setting my relief, and more importantly the Navy, up for success in the future."

The command changes come as senior Navy officials are reviewing a fleet known throughout the Navy for its grueling operations tempo in the Asia-Pacific – a workload that reports say came at the expense of training and other critical needs.

A Government Accountability Office study found more than one-third of needed warfare certifications for Japan-based cruiser and destroyer crews had expired, according to congressional testimony Sept. 7. The agency had first reported on this concern in May 2015.

Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift has vowed to investigate manning, maintenance and cultural norms within the fleet to prevent further incidents.

"History has shown that continuous operations over time causes basic skills to atrophy and in some cases gives commands a false sense of their overall readiness," Swift said in a statement following the McCain accident.

hlavac.tyler@stripes.com

Task Force 70 commander Rear Adm. Charles Williams was relieved Sept. 18, 2017, by 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer "due to a loss of confidence" in his ability to command. Williams and Destroyer Squadron 15 commander Capt. Jeffrey Bennett each lost their jobs in the wake of two deadly collisions involving 7th Fleet destroyers.
COURTESY OF U.S. NAVY

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