Following the second disastrous collision to take place on his watch, the Navy has moved to relieve Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin from command of the 7th Fleet. For anyone who has spent any time in or around the Navy this is a completely predictable response and in keeping with Navy policy. Still, it’s got to sting a bit. (Washington Post)

The U.S. Navy on Wednesday relieved the admiral in charge of the service’s 7th Fleet based in Japan, a spokesman announced. The move comes after four embarrassing accidents this year, two of which killed sailors at sea.

Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet relieved Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin from his duties at the 7th Fleet’s Yokosuka base in Japan. Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer, the Pacific Fleet’s deputy commander, will immediately take command.

The incidents include the deadly collision Monday of the destroyer USS John S. McCain with a much heavier oil tanker off Singapore, and a June 17 accident in which the destroyer USS Fitzgerald was ripped open by a larger Japanese container ship.

This may seem a bit unfair to the civilians observing this. After all, it’s not as if Aucoin was on the bridge (or even the ship) during the collision. But that’s not the Navy way. It’s all about accountability. If you are the captain of the ship and it hits an iceberg at two in the morning, even if you were asleep in your stateroom at the time, you are responsible. And you’ll generally lose your command. If multiple ships run into trouble in the same region, the next person up the line will probably be taking the fall.

Something clearly has been going wrong, though it’s not possible thus far to say if there’s some systemic problem tying these incidents together. Ed asked this question yesterday:

Does the Pacific Fleet have a readiness issue, or is there something going on with its navigation systems? Swift was asked about the possibility of cyberwarfare as a cause for these incidents, said that the investigation was in its “earliest” phase and that nothing would be off the table as a potential contributing factor. Swift said he had not heard or seen any indication yet that cyberwarfare was a factor, but he wasn’t going to rule it out either.

Those are all possible problems and hopefully a complete investigation will provide more answers. It could, in theory, be a readiness or training issue. A system-wide failure of navigation equipment going undetected this long seems unlikely, though not out of the question. The most worrisome aspect to me is the one the Navy isn’t commenting on officially yet. Could this have been a cyberattack? Our newer ships are so high tech compared to the ones I sailed on back in the 70s that they might as well be built by aliens. If criminals or terrorists have found a way to hack into our navigation systems then the obvious next question is whether or not they could remotely take command of the weapons systems as well.

But let’s also keep in mind that while these concerns certainly need to be addressed (and I have no doubt that this is currently happening around the clock) we’re still talking about two collisions in an extremely packed waterway, along with two minor incidents earlier in the year. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that this was just some combination of bad luck, unfortunate timing and possibly some human error both times. And we should all probably hope that’s the case.