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Vice Adm. Tom Rowden out at Naval Surface Forces

Commander of Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet Vice Adm. Tom Rowden speaks with the crew of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76) during a visit to the ship. This visit was part of Rowdena s continuing initiative to engage the leadership and crews of surface combatant ships across the Pacific Fleet and enforce the use of sound shipboard operating principals and their core processes as the path to safe and successful maritime operations.

TREVOR WELSH/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 16, 2018

SAN DIEGO — Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the Navy’s top surface warfare officer, will depart the service on Thursday, the latest fallout in an ongoing probe into a rash of collisions in the Western Pacific that killed 17 sailors over the summer.

Nicknamed the “SWO boss” because of his perch atop all Navy surface warfare officers, Rowden also was tasked with training and equipping the crews of most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s warships at his Coronado-based command.

On Sept. 14, Rowden asked Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson to let him retire earlier than planned — around April instead of in the summer.

“Today, I have informed the chief of naval operations that this Thursday I will step aside earlier than previously planned as the commander, Naval Surface Forces, and commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet,” Rowden told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an emailed statement.

“This was a difficult decision to make, but I make it with the best interest of the surface warfare community and the Navy in mind. In December, the Senate confirmed Rear Adm. Richard Brown to be the next commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. The surface warfare community will be in good hands as Rich is a superb and talented naval officer.

“In this job, I’ve spent three and a half years traveling around the world spending time with our surface force and the men and women who bring life, energy and purpose to our ships. I’ve loved this job and the people I’ve worked with. It has been the highest honor to serve our nation and the Navy for more than 40 years.”

Rear Adm. Brown was serving as the director of Navy Personnel Command and the deputy chief of Naval Personnel.

There will be no change of command ceremony when power is transferred between the two admirals on Thursday.

Citing anonymous sources, both the U.S. Naval Institute and Defense News claimed an ongoing investigation by Adm. James Caldwell, head of the Navy’s reactor program, into accidents involving the warships John S. McCain, Fitzgerald, Lake Champlain and Antietam last year recommended the dismissal of Rowden.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Caldwell’s Consolidated Disposition Authority announced courts-martial proceedings against leaders on both the Fitzgerald and McCain.

In the military, these proceedings are called “Article 32” hearings and they’re convened to determine if a service member should be charged with a crime.

The ex-commander of the Fitzgerald, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, will be summoned to the inquiry as will two of his lieutenants and another unnamed sailor at the rank of lieutenant junior grade.

The potential charges include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, according to a written statement emailed to the Union-Tribune by Capt. Greg Hicks, the Navy Chief of Information.

Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez, the former skipper of the McCain, also faces possible criminal charges including dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, Hicks said.

An unnamed Chief Petty Officer aboard the McCain also has been recommended for a charge of dereliction of duty.

“Additional administrative actions are being conducted for members of both crews including non-judicial punishment for four Fitzgerald and four John S. McCain crewmembers,” Hicks added.

Previous probes into the crashes already had triggered the firings of the top officers aboard the McCain and Fitzgerald and the commodore of Japan-based Destroyer Squadron 15.

The commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, retired earlier than expected and Adm. Scott Swift, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s commander, also indicated he would depart early, too.

Rowden’s Thursday exit occurs on the same day Richardson and Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer are slated to testify before members of the House Armed Services Committee concerning the warship collisions.

Rowden was one of the primary architects of “distributed lethality,” a suite of tactics designed to deter potential enemies like Russia or China but creating an offensively-minded, nimble and lethal legion of American surface warfare officers who could strike and scoot quickly to avoid detection and destruction.

He toiled to revamp the embattled littoral combat ship program, pausing operations in late 2016 to reboot the testing and training of all the vessels’ engineering departments. His innovations reconfigured the sizes of their crews and crafted new squadrons in both San Diego and Mayport, Fla.

The newest of the vessels, the Omaha, is slated to arrive in San Diego early Friday morning, a day after Rowden is relieved.

Despite those triumphs, Rowden’s command was dogged in recent months by the four accidents in the Western Pacific, especially the lethal incidents involving the destroyers McCain and Fitzgerald.

An interim report into the deaths of the 17 sailors that was published on Nov. 1 spotlighted a Navy struggling to train, test, credential and deploy warships in the Japan-based 7th Fleet’s area of operations, a region stretching from the Arctic south past Australia.

Completed on Oct. 23, the 71-page unclassified report was scathing in its denunciations of the leadership teams aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and detailed in the harrowing descriptions of what sailors faced below deck when their vessels were struck by commercial ships.

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©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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