BY RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Rear Adm. Brian Fort assumed command of U.S. Naval Forces Japan and Navy Region Japan (CNFJ/CNRJ) during a change-of-command ceremony Wednesday at a naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, amid growing regional tensions and concerns about the U.S.-Japan alliance, as well as questions of leadership and readiness following two fatal accidents involving American warships in 2017.
As the leader of U.S. naval forces in Japan, Fort’s primary responsibility is to provide shore readiness to the fleet and oversee all shore installations and assigned forces of the U.S. Navy in Japan, while acting as a liaison to the Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The change of command also comes amid lingering concerns over U.S. commitment to Japan and the Asia-Pacific region after U.S. President Donald Trump’s shocking criticism last month of the two allies’ security treaty, which he blasted as “unfair.”
Responding to a reporter’s question about Trump’s comments, Rear Adm. Gregory Fenton, who is now retired from the U.S. Navy after having been relieved of his duties by Fort, noted that the alliance “has withstood the test of time here in Japan.”
Fort, for his part, touted the strength of the bond between the two nations.
“The alliance, the partnership and the friendship of our two nations, and our two navies, has never been stronger,” Fort said at the ceremony. “Command in the navy is unrivaled, it is unequaled and it is incomparable. The enormity of command is born out in the burden of responsibility in commander affairs, and then the priceless reward for representing our nation and the sovereignty of our ships.”
Fort previously served as commander of U.S. Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific. Fenton worked at the Pentagon as a staff member under the chief of naval operations, the navy’s top officer, until he became commander in June 2017.
The Yokosuka base is the U.S. Navy’s largest overseas installation and it provides support for the U.S. 7th Fleet, the largest of the navy’s forward-deployed fleets. The 7th Fleet won fame during World War II as “MacArthur’s Navy” but made headlines just over two years ago following two deadly accidents involving its warships.
In June 2017, seven sailors drowned after the USS Fitzgerald, a $1.8 billion destroyer, collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan. Less than two months later, 10 more sailors lost their lives when the USS John S. McCain smashed into a massive 30,000-ton oil tanker.
The accidents shined a light on systemic problems within the U.S. Navy, from inexperience and understaffing of crews to a tendency among top officials at the Pentagon to spend money on weapons and new technology, rather than its sailors.
“It was a very difficult period after the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain and the loss of a C-2 aircraft in 2017,” Fenton told journalists following the ceremony. “But we took a very deep and long look at the issues that contributed to those accidents and I think that we have been successful at implementing corrective action and changes that the sailors, chiefs and officers of the forward-deployed naval forces are now using.”
The CNFJ/CNRJ, which is headquartered in Yokosuka, provides support for the 7th Fleet and is responsible for naval shore activities at installations ranging from Naval Air Facility Misawa to Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia.
The CNFJ/CNRJ’s area of responsibility includes the British territory of Diego Garcia and extends from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula to the northern tip of Taiwan. It does not include the Korean Peninsula.
“Certainly, after the collisions there were a lot of questions on the minds of the sailors,” Fort said. “Our navy has come a long way with corrective actions.”
Fort was optimistic about morale in the fleet he had just taken over.
“We’ve looked at the training from our most junior officers all the way up to our most senior officers, navy captains in command of some of our larger ships, both aviators and surface warfare officers. We’ve made a lot of changes to both the training and the certification for how you qualify all the way up to commanding a ship,” Fort said.
“In the wake of two really awful tragedies, we have made a lot of very positive change.”
The change of command follows the stunning news Sunday that Adm. Bill Moran, who was expected to take over as the U.S. Navy’s top officer in August, would instead retire because of an investigation into a questionable relationship he had with a former staff officer who allegedly made sexual advances toward junior officers while he was dressed as Santa Claus at a Christmas party in 2016.
That decision will likely leave the navy with its incumbent top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, in place until the U.S. Senate confirms a replacement.
It also comes during what some experts have said is the biggest turnover in memory at the Pentagon’s top levels, including the sudden resignation of then-acting defense chief Patrick Shanahan last month. His replacement, Mark Esper, is the third person to hold the position since December, when Jim Mattis resigned over differences with Trump.