Navy leadership is reportedly planning to take the rate step of relieving the three-star commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet following a string of high-profile ship accidents in the Pacific this year, including two recent destroyer collisions that cost sailors their lives.
Gordon Lubold of The Wall Street Journal reported that several U.S. officials said Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, will be removed from his command Wednesday by U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift.
A spokesperson for the chief of Naval Operations referred a Military.com inquiry on the matter to U.S. Pacific Fleet. An official from the fleet said he could not comment on reports, adding that all efforts were currently focused on finding the missing sailors.
The reported move comes days after the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian-flagged merchant vessel east of the Straits of Malacca early Monday morning.
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Ten sailors were declared missing, and five suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Swift said in a press conference earlier Tuesday that some sailors' remains have been found, but a search-and-rescue effort for the missing has not yet been called off.
The disaster came just months after an eerily similar incident in June in which the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship southwest of Tokyo. Seven sailors drowned as a result of flooding in berthing compartments damaged by the collision.
In non-lethal, but still serious incidents earlier this year, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat, and the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay.
Just hours after the McCain collision, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson announced that all Navy fleets around the globe would observe an operational pause to review safety procedures. Meanwhile, he said, a sweeping investigation would be launched, assessing everything from training received by surface warfare officers to how sailors are prepared and equipped to deploy.
Aucoin would be the first flag officer relieved in the wake of the collisions. Wall Street Journal reports he was set to retire in coming weeks. A Naval aviator, Aucoin is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun and previously served as deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems before taking command of the 7th Fleet in September 2015.
The 7th Fleet is the largest of the Navy's fleets and oversees some 40,000 sailors, along with up to 80 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft.