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‘Loss of confidence’: US submarine officers fired after South China Sea collision

The USS Connecticut was damaged last month when it hit an underwater mountain in the South China Sea. (Photo by AP)

Two senior officers of a US nuclear-powered submarine that struck an underwater mountain last month in the South China Sea have been fired, the US Navy said in a statement.

The action was taken by Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the Japan-based US 7th Fleet, on Thursday against Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani as commanding officer and Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Cashin as executive officer.

Master Chief Sonar Technician Cory Rodgers, who served as a senior adviser to the commander and the executive officer, was also relieved from his duties.

The senior officers of the fast-attack submarine were removed from their positions “due to a loss of confidence”, according to a statement by the Japan-based US 7th Fleet.

“Thomas determined sound judgement, prudent decision-making and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watch team execution and risk management could have prevented the incident,” the statement noted.

The incident took place on October 2 when a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut crashed against an "object" in the South China Sea, with around a dozen sailors getting injured.

It was not reported by the US Navy until five days later, after the vessel had left the South China Sea.

The details about the accident and the extent of damage to the vessel are still not known, although the US Navy has said the submarine's nuclear reactor and propulsion system were not damaged. 

According to a report in the Navy Times, the secretive Seawolf-class sub was in its “fifth month of a deployment” when it collided with the seamount last month.

Pertinently, the accident came just weeks after Australia, the US and the UK announced the AUKUS security partnership, which aims to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia's navy fleet.

In a statement on Thursday, the 7th Fleet said the submarine will return at an unspecified time to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs.

It is not the first such incident with submarines. In 2009, two British and French nuclear subs were damaged after colliding in the Atlantic Sea while in 2019 14 Russian navy officers were killed when their nuclear-powered submersible caught fire near the Barents Sea. 

The incident in the South China Sea happened amidst heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington. The rival territorial claims in the sea have long been a source of tension and hostility in the Indo-Pacific region.

On Tuesday, China accused the United States of "lack of transparency and responsibility" on the submarine collision, urging Washington once again to provide full details of the incident.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, in response to the US 7th Fleet's statement that an investigation determined the submarine had struck a seamount or underwater mountain, said Washington had so far failed to offer "a clear explanation" about what the submarine was doing in the area.

"The US has not provided any clarification on concerns including the intention of the nuclear submarine's navigation, nor has it said whether the incident happened within a country's exclusive economic zone or even territorial waters, and whether the incident resulted in a nuclear leak or damaged the marine environment," he said.

Wang repeated China's call for a "detailed account of the incident," which has revived a dispute between the two countries over the strategic waterway.

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