Ten sailors are missing after a US warship collided with an oil tanker east of Singapore before dawn on Monday, tearing a hole beneath the waterline and flooding compartments that include a crew sleeping area, the US Navy said.
The collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain and the tanker Alnic MC was the second involving a US Navy destroyer and a merchant vessels in Asian waters in less than two months.
The ships collided while the US warship was heading to Singapore for a routine port call, the navy said.
"Initial reports indicate John S McCain sustained damage to her port side aft," it said. "There are currently 10 sailors missing and five injured."
The destroyer had made its way to Singapore's Changi naval base by Monday afternoon under its own power.
“Thoughts & prayers are w/ our @USNavy sailors about the #USSJohnSMcCain where search & rescue efforts are underway,” President Donald Trump said on Twitter.
The collision comes shortly after the top three commanders of the USS Fitzgerald - a US Navy destroyer that ran into a cargo ship near Yokosuka last year - were removed from their positions after an investigation found that flawed teamwork and inadequate leadership contributed to the accident. Seven sailors drowned in that accident.
A US Navy spokesperson said it was too early to make comparisons between the two collisions as the latest accident is still being investigated.
“Our ships are well maintained and our sailors are well trained,” captain Elizabeth Zimmermann said. The Seventh Fleet has between 40 and 60 ships operating in the region at any given time.
USS John S McCain is named after the father and grandfather of senator John McCain. In a tweet, he said he and his wife were praying for the sailors and appreciative of search-and-rescue crews.
Significant damage to the hull had resulted in flooding to compartments, including crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms, the Navy said, but crew members were able to stop the flooding.
Four of the injured were taken by helicopter to hospital in Singapore with non-life threatening injuries. The fifth needed no further treatment.
The Malacca and Singapore straits are key choke points of the oil trade in Asia. About 40 per cent of oil shipped by water passes through the area, as well as about one quarter of the world’s traded goods, according to the Marine Department of Malaysia.
The Alnic MC was chartered on August 17 to ship a cargo of petroleum from South East Asia to the Far East, according to ship-broker data compiled by Bloomberg. It was supposed to load its cargo on August 25.
A search-and-rescue mission was under way for the sailors missing from the USS John S McCain involving Singaporean ships, helicopters and tugs, as well as US Navy aircraft.
Vessels from Malaysia’s navy and maritime authority, as well as its air force, are also helping in those efforts, Malaysia's chief of navy Ahmad Kamarulzaman said in Twitter posts.
Reuters video footage from the Singapore Strait showed an area of impact about 6 metres wide in the John S McCain's port side.
The US Navy and Marine Corps have come under fire for stretching resources to keep up with demand for deployments.
Between 1998 and 2015, the Navy shrank by 20 per cent to 271 ships, while the number of vessels deployed overseas remained at about 100 ships, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, wrote in a 2015 article for The National Interest. Mr Clark concluded that each ship has to work 20 per cent more to meet demand.
“The navy is maxing out limited ships and crews to do an expanding array of jobs to keep up with security commitments here and elsewhere,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the maritime security programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Recent problems faced by USN such as manpower shortages can mean the individual crew on board can spend a higher average number of days out at sea.”