A semi-submersible ship – reportedly Chinese-built – has been deployed to tow the badly damaged USS John S McCain back to its home port in Yokosuka, Japan, after the 8,300-ton guided-missile destroyer’s collision in August that claimed the lives of 10 of its crew, and left another five injured.

The John S McCain will join the USS Fitzgerald, which was involved in an earlier collision with a container ship that killed seven in June.

Virginia-based Navy Times has reported that the destroyer USS O’Kane will be on ad hoc secondment to the Western Pacific to fill the “void” left by the McCain and Fitzgerald, as the two damaged warships will have to undergo an emergency refit and will remain out of service for at least a year.

Pro-Beijing military commentators say the big holes in the two destroyers caused by the early-morning collisions – said to be the size of a tennis court – have laid bare the Pentagon’s flabby oversight and discipline, stressing that both the McCain and the Fitzgerald used to patrol the South China Sea and “provocatively” intrude on Beijing’s sovereignty.

Seven sailors are missing after the USS Fitzgerald guided-missile destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel off Japan on June 17, 2017. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters
Seven sailors went missing after the USS Fitzgerald guided-missile destroyer collided with a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel off Japan on June 17, 2017. Photo: Kyodo / via Reuters

The fact that seamen on the sinking Fitzgerald, after a blackout that downed all electronic devices, had to use a private cellphone to send SOS signals has evoked much derision among fans of the Chinese military, as they jeered that ships of the ace US Seventh Fleet couldn’t even sail properly at night and therefore posed a grave danger to other vessels, as such collisions occurred not just once but twice.

Some have gone so far as to call the US Navy a “paper tiger” on the sea.

Hu Bo, of Peking University’s Ocean Strategy Research Institute, told Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly that the Seventh Fleet and the Pacific Fleet as a whole, the largest of the forward-deployed US fleets, might be overstretched by a host of drills and peacekeeping operations in response to the region’s heightened geopolitical tensions, ranging from the North Korea nuclear and missile crisis to the South China Sea territorial row, as well as boosting defense for its treaty allies, in particular South Korea and Japan.

“The fleet finds itself in a manpower and hardware crunch even though its ships and soldiers have to patrol more waters on a more hectic [schedule].… Frontline soldiers are tired and they receive inadequate training,” Hu said.

It has been revealed that on the day of the John S McCain collision, 53 of the US Navy’s 96 warships outside US waters were in the Asia-Pacific region, within the Seventh Fleet’s area of operation, which spans more than 124 million square kilometers from the International Date Line to the India-Pakistan border and from the Kuril Islands in the north to the Antarctic in the south.

At any given time there are more than 5,000 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft, and about 20,000 sailors in the Seventh Fleet, according to its official website.

Despite the relatively recent (2003) commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, whose home port is Yokosuka, the Seventh Fleet now only has 15 capital warships, with frazzled crews grappling with the spike in war games and daily freedom-of-navigation operations.

Beijing has further stepped up propaganda badmouthing the US Navy’s capabilities in the region, citing Republican Senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain as saying that “there is a big question mark hanging over the US Navy’s war readiness” after these two key destroyers being put out of service, one of them named after his father and grandfather.