US 7th Fleet commander regrets damage to Tubbataha Reef

(Updated 9:01 a.m.) - Vice Admiral Scott H. Swift, commander of the US 7th Fleet, said he regretted the grounding of the USS Guardian, one of the fleet's minesweepers, on Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef,” said Swift in a news release posted on the US 7th Fleet website.

“We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment,” he added. The USS Guardian, which just completed a port call in Subic Bay, ran aground on the reef in Sulu Sea on Thursday on its way to Indonesia due to strong currents.

Related story: USS Guardian 'ignored' warnings it was nearing reef—Tubbataha Management Office

Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of the Logistics Group Western Pacific, has been tasked as the on-scene commander effective Jan. 21 to oversee recovery efforts for the Guardian.

“Carney will embark the destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89), which, along with several other U.S. Navy vessels, is focused on preventing any further environmental damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment,” the statement said.

The 68-meter-long USS Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef on January 17, was spun around 90 degrees by the current, possibly causing more damage to the protected sanctuary. Photo from AFP Western Command The news release also said that once the US ship is safely recovered by their navy, the US government “will continue to work with the Republic of Philippines government to assess the extent of the damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding.” Meanwhile, according to an article in the US military community periodical Stars and Stripes, the Guardian was on its way to Indonesia after leaving Subic Bay. From Indonesia the ship was supposed to go on to East Timor to join a training exercise.

Also, the Guardian official website said the mine-countermeasures ship is presently commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice. He was a former instructor at the Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer School and the former executive officer of the Guardian. Stars and Stripes said that commanders are often

relieved of duty when incidents such as the grounding occur. It cited such examples of ships' captains being relieved as when, last June, Capt. Chuck Litchfield was fired when his amphibious assault ship USS Essex crashed into a refueling ship. Cmdr. Martin Arriola, meanwhile, was fired from his helm when the ship he commanded, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Porter, collided with a tanker in the Persian Gulf on Aug. 30. Another commander, Sara Santoski, was fired from heading the

Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 on Sept. 1 following a crash resulting in the death of two sailors. All in all, 25 Navy commanding officers were relieved in 2012, two more than the year 2011. Faulty charts A separate article in Stars and Stripes said an inaccuracy in the US Navy's Digital Nautical Charts may have caused the USS Guardian to run aground on the Tubbataha Reef. The article said that Navigator of the Navy Rear Adm. Jonathan White had warned all Pacific Fleet ships that an "initial review of navigation data indicates an error in the location of Tubbataha Reef." However, Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James cautioned that "while the erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions." "It is critical that the U.S. Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts surrounding the Guardian grounding,” James added. PHL government ready to help The Philippine government said it sees no problem in extending help to the US Navy in extricating the USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef, Malacañang said Sunday.

Related story: 72 US sailors leave ship stuck in Philippine reef

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also declined to comment on the US Navy's liability in the incident for now, saying the Palace will wait for the investigation on the matter to finish.

“Walang problema kung kakailanganin ang ating tulong,” Valte said on government-run dzRB radio. For their part, the Philippine Navy has sent out three boats and a few Philippine Coast Guard boats to stand by in case the US Navy needs assistance, said a report on GMA News' Balitanghali on Sunday.

In addition, the Philippine Navy has sent an oil spill response team in the area despite no signs of oil spill yet, it added. US 7th Fleet Established in 1943, the US 7th fleet is the largest US numbered fleet with an area of responsibility of 48 million square miles. As 7th Fleet commander, Swift serves as the operational commander of all US naval forces in the region, the website said.

The USS Guardian is one of the fleet's 60 to 70 ships that support the core capabilities of the US maritimes strategy: forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response, according to the website.

Commissioned in 1989, the USS Guardian is the fifth Avenger Class Mine Countermeasures ship to join the US Navy's fleet, according to the United States Navy Website.

— Danny Manalo/Carmela G. Lapeña/KG, GMA News

The USS Guardian, a U.S. Navy minesweeper, is seen at the Vicinity of South Islet in Tubbataha Reefs after it ran …

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