Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer has his work cut out for him in his new role as the Commander of the U.S.’ troubled 7th Fleet in the Pacific. His appointment came almost a full month early, after the previous Commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, was relieved from his post due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command that came as a result of multiple high-profile incidents involving American warships colliding with commercial vessels or running aground in the fleet’s Area of Operation. Now, Sawyer, a career submariner, is tasked with identifying the issues that seem to pervade in his fleet, and finding a solution amid heightening tensions with China and North Korea within his domain.
During the last 69 days, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) were involved in two separate major collisions with commercial vessels while operating in the Seventh Fleet AOR [area of responsibility],” Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. William Moran, wrote in a memorandum to Adm. Philip Davidson, commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “Recent events indicate these tragic incidents are not limited occurrences but part of a disturbing trend of mishaps involving U.S. warships in the AOR – include the grounding of the USS Antietam (CG 54) in January and a collision between the USS Lake Chaplain (CG 57) and a South Korean fishing vessel in May.”
The two most recent incidents, the USS Fitzgerald colliding with a merchant vessel, and the USS John S. McCain colliding with an oil tanker, claimed the lives of seven sailors and potentially ten sailors respectively, aside from the damage these events did to the U.S. Navy’s reputation in the region and the world over. State owned newspaper outlets in America’s Pacific diplomatic rival, China, have called America’s warships a “hazard” to peaceful seafaring vessels in the region, and the Navy’s own investigation into the events leading to the Fitzgerald’s collision seems to place the blame, at least in the majority, on the command crew of the destroyer – making it hard to dispute China’s claims.
In that same memo between Moran and Davidson, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations relayed his commander’s wishes that Davidson “lead a Comprehensive Review of surface fleet operations and incidents at sea that have occurred over the past decade with emphasis on Seventh Fleet operational employment to inform improvements Navy-wide.” It seems likely, then, that the 7th Fleet’s new commander will be playing an active role in this investigation, and more importantly, will be charged with implanting the changes directed by Davidson.
The memo mandates a review of training and professional development with an eye toward ensuring each individual sailor is well versed in proper seamanship, including navigation and voyage planning for those tasked with the responsibility. It also calls for unit-level training and a review of the certifications required and employed by sailors in the 7th Fleet. Operational Risk Management (ORM) and material readiness were also addressed directly – but most importantly, the memo requires that Davidson offer “detailed recommendations with respect to corrective actions necessary to ensure the safety of our people, safe operations at sea, and the readiness of our force.”
Davidson and Sawyer are expected to have this comprehensive review completed within sixty days, and seeing as the memo arrived one day after Sawyer checked into his new command, he’ll need to hit the ground running. Prior to assuming control of the 7th Fleet, Sawyer served as the deputy commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. Prior to his time there, he led U.S. Submarine Forces Pacific, Submarine Group 7/ Task Force 54, and 74 in Yokosuka. During his time at sea, Sawyer commanded the USS La Jolla (SSN 701) and Submarine Squadron 15 in Guam.
The 7th Fleet is comprised of between 50 and 70 ships and submarines, depending on the circumstances, along with 140 aircraft and more than 20,000 sailors. They are responsible for a stretch of the Pacific that spans from the International Date Line to the India/Pakistan border; and from the Kuril Islands in the North, to the Antarctic in the South.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy