On June 17, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine cargo ship, killing seven U.S. sailors. The USS Fitzgerald was returning to port in Yokosuka, Japan, after performing exercises in the South China Sea when it collided with the Philippine vessel only 60 miles from its base.
Our sympathy goes out to those sailors who died in a noncombat incident. It is hard to imagine a U.S. warship having such a serious collision with a civilian ship as occurred here. As yet, there has been no formal statement regarding the cause of this accident, but public opinion is that it was likely due to an error made on the U.S. warship.
This accident has left a deep impression on many people, including the feeling that U.S. warships are reckless in the western Pacific Ocean. The chances of serious collisions between large vessels are, of course, low, as are the chances of casualties caused by such an incident. As this accident involved a U.S. warship, this coincidence may be based on how frequently U.S. warships sail.
The USS Fitzgerald frequently sailed the western Pacific Ocean for exercises and often into Chinese waters. This time, the USS Fitzgerald was not paying attention. Rules and regulations state that ships must avoid one another on the seas; the rule that smaller ships must give way to larger ships is, unfortunately, only an unwritten rule. The 8,000-ton-plus
USS Fitzgerald collided with the 29,000-ton Philippine merchant vessel, a ship more than three times its size. Facing this kind of colossus, the USS Fitzgerald should have taken care, but it clearly did not demonstrate an appropriate amount of caution at the time.
Normally no one would dare collide with a U.S. warship, especially considering that the setting of this incident was in Japanese waters, an area in which the U.S. Navy’s authority is challenged the least. It is believed that the Philippine merchant ship wanted to avoid the USS Fitzgerald, but still collided with it anyway; it was the Philippine ship’s bow, the toughest part of the ship, which hit the USS Fitzgerald’s weak starboard.
The incident occurred in the very early hours of the 17, at 1:30 a.m. local time, during the darkest hours of the night. However, cargo ships are equipped with many lights for nighttime use which are visible at a great distance. The USS Fitzgerald has the ability to partially minimize its visibility; on top of that, it is comparatively small. The Philippine ship certainly became aware of the USS Fitzgerald later than the latter became aware of the cargo ship. From this perspective, the greater part of responsibility lies with the Americans.
Governments in the Asia-Pacific highly value the U.S. None of them wants their country’s vessels to provoke U.S. vessels, something the U.S. ships know very well, so this could have been a factor in the minds of the U.S. warship’s crew while it was sailing. The helpless crew members were almost all sleeping in those early hours of the morning, and partially relied on automated equipment. Some countries revere the U.S., but this does not automatically mean that the sailors working on their own ships feel the same.
Fortunately, the ship that collided with the U.S. warship was flying the flag of a U.S. ally, the Philippines, and was carrying goods for a Japanese shipping company. Chinese and Russian merchant ships which sail the western Pacific Ocean are also very large. If a Chinese or Russian merchant ship were to have collided with a U.S. Navy vessel, the situation would have become much more complicated; it could easily have been interpreted politically and might have led to a geopolitical crisis.
U.S. Navy ships which use the shipping lanes in the western Pacific Ocean every day should therefore be a little more careful. America’s biggest Navy vessel is an aircraft carrier, of up to 100,000 tons of displacement. The majority of aircraft carriers are several thousand tons, but there are many merchant ships in these waters which exceed 100,000 tons, the largest of which make up several hundreds of thousands of tons of displacement. Regardless of whether the U.S. Navy ship bumped into a small boat or a large ship, it is a tragedy. It is likely that this will result in an interpretation of what the collision means beyond this incident as well.
The USS Fitzgerald’s commander and those who were also in relevant positions of responsibility will undoubtedly be disciplined. Hopefully U.S. ships that sail in the western Pacific Ocean will take caution, not only to ensure their own safety, but also to contribute to the safety of the whole shipping channel area.