The following is a news report from the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI):
(WASHINGTON) — The commander of the Navy’s largest operational battle force and his subordinate in charge of the attached destroyer squadron have been removed from their positions as a result of ongoing investigations into a string of incidents this year that resulted in the death of 17 sailors and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, USNI News has learned.
U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Philip Sawyer removed Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of Combined Task Force 70, and Capt. Jeffery Bennett, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15, from their positions on Monday due to a loss of confidence in their ability to command, two Navy officials told USNI News and later confirmed by a statement from the service.
Williams also served as commander of Carrier Strike Group 5 with USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Bennett’s command included guided-missile destroyers USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). Fitzgerald collided with a merchant ship off Japan on June 17 and resulted in the death of seven sailors, while McCain collided with a chemical tanker near Singapore on Aug. 21, resulting in the death of 10 sailors.
“Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of Task Force 76 (CTF 76), assumed duties as commander, CTF 70. Capt. Jonathan Duffy, deputy commander, DESRON 15, assumed duties as commander,” read a statement from the Navy following an earlier version of this post.
The officials told USNI News the removals of Williams and Bennett are part of ongoing accountability actions as part of the Navy investigations into four surface ship incidents – three collisions and a grounding – in the Western Pacific this year.
Not directly related to the accountability actions, the head of U.S. Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Tom Rowden put in a request last week to retire about two months early, several Navy officials confirmed USNI News.
The sources told USNI News that Rowden told Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson he wanted to step aside to allow for new leadership to guide the surface forces. Rowden’s exit is not immediate and he will remain in the position until a suitable replacement is found.
A spokesman for Rowden acknowledged a request for comment from USNI News but did not issue a reply.
The removals and Rowden’s request for early retirement come only days before Richardson and Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer are set to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the string of incidents in the Western Pacific this year.
The appearance of Richardson and Spencer before the panel is expected to be more contentious than a hearing earlier this month, when Navy leadership testified before the House Armed Services readiness and seapower and projection forces subcommittees, Navy and legislative sources have told USNI News.
Appearing with Spencer and Richardson is Government Accountability Office director of defense readiness issues John Pendleton, who has guided several reports on the lack of certifications and overwork of the Navy’s forward-deployed forces that have been substantiated by the service.
As to the removals, Bennett and Williams are the fifth and sixth officials to be relieved from their positions in U.S. 7th Fleet following the two deadly collisions between U.S. warships and merchant ships.
Former U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin was removed weeks short of his planned retirement shortly after the McCain collision. The command triad of Fitzgerald – commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson, executive officer Cmdr. Sean Babbitt and command master chief CMC Brice Baldwin – were removed from their positions two months after that destroyer’s fatal collision.
Attached to the CSG, DESRON 15 was responsible for the not only the support of the forward-deployed strike group but also the ballistic missile defense patrols in the Sea of Japan that serve as a hedge against North Korea.
The loss of McCain and Fitzgerald leave the DESRON with only five destroyers. U.S. Pacific Fleet officials have repeatedly told USNI News the service will be able to provide ballistic missile defense protection for U.S. allies in the region despite the loss of Fitzgerald and McCain.
Williams, a career surface sailor, had assumed command of CTF-70 in July 2016. That task force serves as the centerpiece of the U.S. forward-deployed naval force and can provide short-notice presence with carrier Reagan and CSG-5.
Previous to commanding DESRON-15, Bennett commanded the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale (DDG 106) and several mine countermeasures ships.
It’s unclear what further accountability actions are in the works as a result of not only the investigations into Fitzgerald and McCain but also into a probe led by U.S. Fleet Forces commander Adm. Phil Davidson and a separate look ordered by Spencer.