“That gives great cause for concern that there’s something out there that we’re not getting at,” Admiral Richardson told reporters at the Pentagon during a brief news conference.
Off the Singapore coast, search teams scrambled on Monday to determine the fate of the missing sailors from the John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer that had been passing east of the Strait of Malacca en route to a port visit in Singapore.
At 5:24 a.m. local time, before dawn broke, the destroyer collided with the Alnic MC, a 600-foot vessel that transports oil and chemicals, the Navy said. The destroyer was damaged near the rear on its port, or left-hand, side. Ten sailors on the ship remained unaccounted for. Five others were injured, none with life-threatening conditions, a Navy official said.
The collision occurred in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, a narrow waterway of strategic significance connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, where Beijing has been challenging American naval dominance. It immediately raised questions about the training and safety record of Navy ships, happening just two months after another Navy destroyer, the Fitzgerald, collided with a freighter off Japan, killing seven American sailors.
Admiral Richardson said the broader review of the Seventh Fleet would examine its pace of operations; readiness issues, including maintenance, equipment and personnel; and whether the fleet was properly training its officers and ship crews.
Adm. Phil Davidson, the head of the Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., will oversee the broader review, drawing on experts inside and outside the Navy, including commercial shipping companies, Admiral Richardson added.
Traversing the Malacca Strait is like going on a superhighway at sea — not too difficult on a calm, clear day but often harrowing in bad weather. Ships often do not stay in designated traffic separation zones. In the 1990s, many merchant ships would light up their decks at night to ward off local pirates. The bright lights could dangerously obscure the vision of officers on approaching ships.
To deal with these challenges, extra sailors are assigned as lookouts and others are added below decks to help in case of steering or engine problems. A ship’s commanding officer, navigator or executive officer is often on the bridge during the traversal. Navigation teams routinely hold briefings before entering narrow waters to go over safety issues. Radar operators and combat information officers also track ships.
Kirk Patterson, a former dean of the Japan campus of Temple University who has crossed the Pacific in a sailboat and circumnavigated Japan, said an oil tanker hitting a destroyer would be like the collision of an “F1 sports car and a garbage truck.”
“Which one is going to be able to avoid the collision?” he said. “An F1 racing car equipped with state-of-the-art missiles.”
A destroyer going through a difficult passage like the Strait of Malacca would typically have half a dozen sailors, including two officers, on the bridge watching for the lights of other ships, said retired Navy Capt. Bernard D. Cole, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and professor emeritus at the National War College.
When an oil tanker is detected, Captain Cole said, the officer on deck or the commanding officer will propose some kind of evasive action to avoid a collision. But “in some places like the approaches to the Malacca Strait, geographically you don’t have a lot of flexibility.”
Bryan McGrath, a security consultant who commanded a Navy destroyer from 2004 to 2006, said it was impossible for now to say whether there was any common cause in the two collisions. However, he said, Navy officials should consider whether an operational increase in the face of provocative behavior from China and North Korea might be undercutting readiness.
The two collisions of United States Navy vessels with large commercial vessels have caught the international shipping community by surprise. Deadly collisions among large commercial ships have become extremely rare, even though large freighters and tankers vastly outnumber naval vessels on the high seas.
The number of large commercial vessels in operation has been gradually climbing for many years, and that increase has not been accompanied by a spate of collisions. One of the very few collisions in the past decade took place near Hong Kong waters in 2014, when a Chinese cargo ship laden with cement was hit by a large container ship and sank quickly with most of its crew aboard. More frequent episodes have involved large vessels running over small coastal craft, or river collisions by barges — not crashes at sea between two big ships.
Navy ships are unusually vulnerable if they become involved in collisions, and those vulnerabilities may explain why so many sailors have perished or disappeared in the two crashes this summer.
The crews of naval vessels have their sleeping berths near the water line, so the berths may flood quickly after a collision. By contrast, the crews of commercial vessels tend to sleep in cabins near the back, above the cargo and engines, and far above the water.
“The architecture of the ships is completely different,” said Basil M. Karatzas, a longtime New York ship broker. Military designers have tried to keep the profiles of naval vessels as low as possible, to make them smaller targets for enemy guns, aircraft and missiles, and have avoided putting sleeping quarters high above the water.
Another major difference: Almost all tankers have double hulls, as do about a third of dry-bulk freighters, which carry cargos like corn and iron ore. These vessels have about a yard of space between the inner and outer hulls to act as a buffer during minor collisions, and this has made oil spills a rarity in recent years on the few occasions when tankers have brushed against other vessels. Military vessels seldom have such wide hollow spaces because they are designed to be sleek and fast.
Capt. Harry Bolton, the director of marine programs at California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif., said modern large commercial vessels have multiple electronic systems that are directly integrated with the autopilot to prevent collisions. Officers on commercial ships also undergo frequent training exercises with an emphasis on collision avoidance.
Officer training and electronic systems have helped yield a sharp improvement in shipping safety around the globe. According to a shipping safety report this year by Allianz, the German insurance giant, there were 17 commercial vessels sunk in collisions as recently as 2007; last year, there was only one, a smaller vessel.
The American Navy’s series of collisions this year, at a time of steadily improving overall shipping safety, suggests that the Navy may need to do more training of the officers on its bridges, Captain Bolton said.
“That’s a lack of what we call bridge-team management,” he said. “It’s fixable: They bring the same kind of training that we get.”