WASHINGTON – The head of U.S. Navy forces in the Pacific fired the three-star commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet Wednesday, two days after the second deadly collision between a U.S. destroyer and a commercial tanker in as many months.

Adm. Scott Swift relieved Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin after a rash of accidents have raised fundamental questions about the ships in 7th Fleet, including whether they are able to safely execute even the most basic functions expected of naval warships based in one of the most congested and volatile regions on earth.

“Adm. Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” a release posted on PACFLT‘s website said.

The Navy’s top officer said safety must be the priority of the incoming commander, in a statement to Defense News.

“I support Adm. Swift‘s decision to bring in new leadership to 7th Fleet,” said Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations. ”The new Seventh Fleet commander must help move his team forward, focusing on safe and effective operations.”

Aucoin was slated to turn over 7th Fleet in September with Rear Adm. Philip Sawyer, a career submariner who will now take charge of a fleet under intense scrutiny from the highest levels in the Navy.

Monday’s accident between the destroyer John S. McCain and an oil tanker outside the busy Straits of Malacca has shaken the Navy to its core, coming just weeks after a collision involving the destroyer Fitzgerald that killed seven sailors who were sleeping in their berthing at the time. The second accident left five wounded and 10 sailors missing, and divers have begun to locate their remains inside the sealed, damaged compartments.

The McCain collision was the latest in a string of four critical navigation safety lapses in 7th Fleet just this year, that also included a grounding in Tokyo Bay and a collision with a Korean fishing boat, both involving cruisers based in Yokosuka. 

The accidents prompted Richardson on Monday to order his top warfare commander, Adm. Phil Davidson, to lead a probe into 7th Fleet operations and find out what’s gone wrong. 

“This will be a broader effort, looking at a number of things,” Richardson told a group of reporters Aug. 21. ”One being, what is the situation out in Japan with our forward deployed naval forces out there, how are they executing their business?

“I just want to understand that more deeply in terms of training, generating that readiness that we’ve asked them to achieve, and then certifying that readiness.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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