US Navy fires 2 officers for South China Sea submarine mishap that angered Beijing

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The US Navy announced on Thursday that it has fired two senior officials deemed responsible for a recent mishap involving the USS Connecticut submarine in the South China Sea, shortly after a top military official said it was looking to hold individuals accountable for the incident that sparked a diplomatic row with Beijing.

Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, said a commanding officer and a sonar technician were relieved of their duties owing to “a loss of confidence” in their abilities, according to the statement.

“Thomas determined sound judgment, prudent decision-making and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watch team execution and risk management could have prevented the incident,” the US Navy said. The nuclear-powered attack submarine “remains in Guam while undergoing damage assessment and will return to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs”.

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Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said earlier on Thursday that the US Navy had planned to hold officials accountable if an investigation found it was necessary. He was speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington, where he also commented on America’s military rivalry with Beijing.

USS Connecticut arrives at Fleet Activities Yokosuka base for a scheduled port visit on July 31 in Japan. Photo: US Navy via AP
USS Connecticut arrives at Fleet Activities Yokosuka base for a scheduled port visit on July 31 in Japan. Photo: US Navy via AP

The Navy said on Monday that initial investigation had concluded that the vessel struck a geological formation and not another vessel. The incident has increased tensions between the US and China that had already been building owing to the rapid growth of Beijing’s military presence in the region, an issue that Del Toro addressed at the two-day conference.

The US Navy secretary said his main strategic priorities boil down to “the four Cs”, which “starts with China as our most significant pacing threat”, reiterating a term that other top military officials, including Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, have used to describe the urgency with which they view Beijing’s military ambitions.

“China’s intent to one day take over Taiwan, either peacefully or through military means has a most serious impact on our economic security … and for the destabilisation of the global economy for that matter,” he said.

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“We don’t take our eyes off the many of the threats that exist, including those presented by Russia, Iran, North Korea and many other countries, and the terrorist threat that always is relevant everywhere around the world as well.

“But China is unquestionably the most significant threat,” he said.

Del Toro highlighted China’s rapid naval expansion in the form of 20 new naval warships built last year and plans to christen another 20 of the vessels this year.

Echoing the concerns that Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed at the Aspen conference on Wednesday, he warned that the US similarly needs to pick up the pace.

“When we look at our shipbuilding capability, I am concerned that we need to make greater investments and shipbuilding in order to get us to par” with plans outlined in the National Defence Authorisation Act, which is Washington’s annual must-pass legislation that funds the US military.

In 2018, the defence spending bill called for 355 new naval ships, and “in order to get there, we’re going to have to increase resources by at least three to five per cent over inflation”, he said. “That would be an honourable goal for the Department of Navy to be able to do so.”

The other Cs listed by Del Toro were “attention to culture”; climate, which Del Toro said was “an existential threat to our national security”; and Covid-19.

Citing a 99.4 per cent vaccination rate in the US Navy, he said: “Hopefully, I can start talking about, perhaps, the three Cs.”

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