By Yutaka Mitsuo
Vice Admiral Phillip Sawyer, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet with headquarters in Yokosuka City, gave an exclusive interview to Yomiuri Shimbun. With North Korea, which is launching ballistic missiles repeatedly, and China, which is accelerating its maritime advancement, in mind, he stated: “Ships and aircraft will be deployed anywhere in the region (Asia-Pacific) to the extent allowed under international law.”
Last August, Sawyer replaced Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, who was removed on account of a series of Aegis ship accidents last year.
On the North Korea situation, he criticized the DPRK for “causing anxiety among the neighboring countries with its actions in recent years.” While he pointed out that “the U.S. prioritizes diplomatic efforts in the United Nations and elsewhere, and the U.S. forces would be an option when something happens,” he touched on the possibility of military deployment in a contingency.
Sawyer also revealed that the Seventh Fleet’s nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is undergoing maintenance at the Yokosuka base and the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Third Fleet with several destroyers and cruisers is currently deployed in waters near Japan.
He indicated that in light of China’s efforts to build military strongholds in the South China Sea, the Fifth Fleet’s nuclear carrier will pass through nearby sea areas on its way home from its mission in the Middle East in support of the Seventh Fleet’s mission.
Meanwhile, Sawyer explained that he will reorder the priority of the Seventh Fleet’s duties since the series of Aegis ship accidents were the result of an excessive workload imposed on the crews. Due to this operational review, the deployment at the Sasebo base (in Nagasaki Prefecture) of the Wasp amphibious assault ship sent to Puerto Rico for hurricane disaster relief “was delayed from the second half of last year to last month.”
The commander said that multiple measures are being taken to prevent the recurrence of accidents. Automatic identification systems (AIS), which send out signals on the position of ships based on their course, speed, and other data, are now being used after the recent accidents. He said: “Providing information on U.S. ships to other vessels will help prevent accidents.”
Furthermore, in order to improve communication among crew members, a decision has been made to conduct drills for the purpose of enhancing coordination between the bridge and the combat information center. A review of crew members’ skills and competencies was also implemented for all Seventh Fleet vessels.
Last year, two Seventh Fleet destroyers were involved in collisions with civilian vessels in waters off the Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture, and near Singapore, resulting in a total of 17 fatalities. The U.S. Navy compiled a report stating that “these accidents were caused by human factors such as inadequate surveillance and lack of skills.”