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10 U.S. Navy Sailors Missing After Destroyer Collides With Tanker Off Singapore


Today the Navy ordered an operational review of its entire fleet after an early morning accident off the coast of Singapore. The destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker. Ten sailors are missing. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre reports it's the fourth accident in Asia involving a U.S. warship this year.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, is ordering a one-day operational pause in Navy fleets across the world.


ADMIRAL JOHN RICHARDSON: Want our fleet commanders to get together with their leaders and their commands to ensure that we're taking all appropriate, immediate actions to ensure safe and effective operations around the world.

MYRE: Some former Navy commanders say this is a good place to start, but they think these recent accidents point to a larger problem that can't be fixed overnight.

JERRY HENDRIX: The last 15 years of warfare since 9/11 have been largely, you know, focused on ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and not at sea.

MYRE: Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy captain who's now at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He says more attention has been paid to the other armed services.

HENDRIX: The Navy has essentially had to sort of manage within itself over that same period of time. And right now we're seeing those chickens come home to roost.

MYRE: The accident involving the McCain, named after two admirals, the grandfather and father of Arizona Senator John McCain, took place around dawn near the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest waterways in the world. Here's retired Rear Admiral Terry McKnight.

TERRY MCKNIGHT: Every commanding officer - and I say that, every commanding officer - I underline it and put it in bold - has had a close call. I know I've had many of them.

MYRE: But, he adds, the difference between a close call and an accident can be a commander's level of experience.

MCKNIGHT: And I think 99.9 percent of time, there always is someplace else you can go to avoid collision.

MYRE: He says advances in technology means sailors are spending more time on simulators and less time on sea training. And it's not the same thing.

MCKNIGHT: But if - you know, if something happens in a simulator, you know, you say, OK, stop the situation. You know, I'd do this, and then you regroup. There's no - in real life, you can't stop the situation. It keeps moving.

MYRE: An ongoing debate in naval circles is how large the fleet should be. It's gone from 400 ships at the end of the Cold War to around 275 today. The Navy wants to have about a hundred of those ships operating at any given time. That puts more pressure on the existing fleet. But the former commanders note that investigations into other recent accidents have indicated that poor seamanship was a factor. As Jerry Hendrix notes, the Strait of Malacca can be unforgiving.

HENDRIX: It's one of the most congested regions in the world. However, you know, we're driving warships that are very powerful, very maneuverable, very fast. You know, we ought to be able to avoid other ships in the area.

MYRE: The damaged ship is in port in Singapore. The Navy is searching for the missing sailors and investigating the cause of the collision. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.