U.S. Navy salvors remove equipment from the grounded USS Guardian in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 26. Fiberglass sheathing has come off the port side, revealing the minesweeper's wooden hull. The destroyer USS Mustin stands by at left. (MC3 Kelby Sanders / Navy)
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Caught between the jagged coral of an ocean reef and Filipino environmental and political concerns, the Navy says it will cut up the trapped Guardian and take it away piece by piece.
"Our only supportable option is to dismantle the damaged ship and remove it in sections," Capt. Darryn James, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said Tuesday.
The decision, James said, keeps salvage equipment in deeper water and minimizes further damage to the coral reef.
The salvage plan, he said, aims to "safely remove individual sections of the ship without causing the release of harmful materials."
Earlier, Rear Adm. Tom Carney, commander of the salvage effort, said the ship was too badly damaged for salvors to tow her off the reef.
Two heavy lift ship-borne cranes are en route to the scene of the grounding in the western Philippines and should arrive about Feb.1, James said. The dismantling operation is expected to take more than a month to complete.
All the ship's fuel has been removed, the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet said Jan. 25, and teams continue to take off more materiel.
"The Navy has safely transferred approximately 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 671 gallons of lubricating oil, dry food stores, paints and solvents contained in storage lockers, and the personal effects left behind by the crew from the ship," the Seventh Fleet said in a Monday news release.
The 79-man crew evacuated the Guardian late Jan. 17, hours after the ship went aground on Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. The minesweeper had been en route from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Indonesia. Most of the crew was returned to Japan last week, and a U.S. Navy salvage team has been working on the wreck.
Tubbataha Reef is about 80 nautical miles east-southeast of Palawan island.
The Filipino government has questioned why the ship was in the area — a protected UNESCO world heritage site where routine ship traffic is prohibited — and why the Guardian reportedly ignored warnings from local authorities that it was headed for the reef.
A U.S. Navy investigation into the incident is continuing.
The U.S. Navy also revealed Jan. 18 that the digital navigational chart in use by the Guardian misplaced the correct location of the reef by about eight nautical miles. The Navy and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, producer of the digital charts, reviewed more then 3,700 digital charts and, in addition to the Tubbataha Reef error, found another mistake off the coast of Chile. Both errors have since been corrected, and the Navy's chief navigation official has declared his confidence in the accuracy of the digital charts.
The Guardian, a mine countermeasures ship built of composite materials, is a small ship by Navy standards, with a full load displacement of 1,312 tons, a length of 224 feet and beam of 39 feet. It is the fifth of 14 Avenger-class ships and was commissioned in 1989.
The ship has been assigned to the Seventh Fleet for most of her career and is forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan.
The Guardian's hull, according to the Navy, has been punctured by the coral, and several compartments have been flooded. Most of the fiberglass on the ship's port side has delaminated and come off, revealing the ship's wooden hull.
The Pearl Harbor-based Navy salvage ship Salvor arrived on the scene Sunday, joining the survey ship Bowditch, James said.
The destroyer Mustin continues to stand by the minesweeper as the flagship for the salvage effort, and the chartered anchor-handling tug Vos Apollo also is standing by.
The loss of the Guardian is a serious blow for the stressed U.S. mine force, which has been called on to expand operations in the Persian Gulf. Including the Guardian, 12 of the fleet's 14 mine countermeasures ships are currently operating overseas or forward-deployed to the Far East or the Persian Gulf region.
The ships, which date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, were to have been replaced by new littoral combat ships, but lengthy delays in fielding new LCSs have led to renewed investment in the older ships, which have been upgraded and improved at considerable expense.
The Guardian incident has been a public relations mess for the U.S., which in recent years has been steadily — and somewhat quietly — increasing military visits to the Philippines.
President Benigno Aquino protested the Guardian's actions, and the Philippine government is conducting its own investigation into the affair. Filipino authorities have said that about 1,000 square meters of coral reef have been damaged by the Guardian.
Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Seventh Fleet, issued an apology Jan. 20 for the incident.
"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef," Swift said in a statement. "We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment."
James emphasized the Navy's efforts to cooperate with the Filipinos.
"We continue to work closely at all levels with the Philippine Coast Guard, Navy and government personnel," James said. "We are grateful for the support we have received as we all work together to recover Guardian and minimize further damage to the reef."