By Matt Young, Lolita Baldor

For 70 years, the US Navy brought Asia to its nautical knees and was an ally in times of serious need.

But recent tragedies has forced the Navy to dismiss the commander of its seventh fleet, and raised questions about the future of American operations in the Pacific.

American warships in Asia have been involved in four accidents in the past year alone, the most recent being a collision off the coast of Singapore on Monday. The USS John McCain hit an oil tanker, injuring five sailors and leaving 10 others missing.

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This combination of file photos show U.S. Navy ships the USS Antietam, top left; the USS Lake Champlain, top right; the USS Fitzgerald, bottom left; and the USS John S. McCain. Photos / AP
This combination of file photos show U.S. Navy ships the USS Antietam, top left; the USS Lake Champlain, top right; the USS Fitzgerald, bottom left; and the USS John S. McCain. Photos / AP

US Navy and Marine Corps divers have reportedly found the remains of some of the missing sailors, and there is little hope left that any have survived.

Seven sailors died in June when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off Japan.

The sight of the damaged boats, with gaping holes in their hulls, has left a stain on America's supposed strength at sea. If a commercial ship can cause so much damage, what could the US' enemies do?

Someone has to be held accountable, and the finger has been pointed at the commander of the Asia-based seventh fleet, Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin.

Aucoin had been in charge of the fleet for three years with 70 ships and submarines under his command. He was due to retire next month, but in a short statement, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, announced he had relieved commander Aucoin "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command".

"While each of these four incidents is unique, they cannot be viewed in isolation," Swift said earlier.

He said the Navy would carry out a "deliberate reset" of all its ships in the Pacific, focused on navigation, mechanical systems and bridge resource management. It will include training and an expert assessment of each ship.

The Navy said Rear Admiral Phillip Sawyer, who had already been named as Aucoin's successor, would assume command immediately.

Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin had commanded the 7th Fleet for three years. Photo / AP
Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin had commanded the 7th Fleet for three years. Photo / AP
Vice-Admiral Phillip Sawyer will take command of the 7th Fleet immediately. Photo / AP
Vice-Admiral Phillip Sawyer will take command of the 7th Fleet immediately. Photo / AP

But there are larger problems at play here than the leadership of one man. With a dwindling naval service and a smaller number of ships in the sea, some say the US Navy is an organisation at breaking point.

Over the past three decades alone, the Navy's fleet has shrunk from almost 600 ships to 276 today. While campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump promised to re-expand the fleet by building more ships and increasing the number of aircraft carriers to 12, but his first budget actually proposed cuts to funding for shipbuilding.

DISASTER AFTER DISASTER

On Tuesday at a news conference in Singapore where the USS John McCain is now docked, Swift said Navy divers had found remains of some of the missing sailors in a flooded compartment in the ship.

He also said Malaysians assisting in the search had found a body, but it had not been determined whether it was a McCain crew member.

The seventh fleet said on Wednesday that Navy and Marine Corps divers are continuing to search flooded compartments in the hope of locating more of the missing sailors.

A Royal Malaysian Navy sailor scans the sea for missing sailors from the USS John S. McCain off the Johor coast of Malaysia. Photo / AP
A Royal Malaysian Navy sailor scans the sea for missing sailors from the USS John S. McCain off the Johor coast of Malaysia. Photo / AP

The sea-based search east of Singapore "is expanding to encompass a greater area as time goes on", it said. The Singapore Government said the search area more than doubled Wednesday to about 5500sq km with aircraft and vessels deployed by the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.

At least five of the 10 missing sailors have been identified by relatives.

The collision at daybreak in a busy shipping area tore a gaping hole in the McCain's left rear hull and flooded adjacent compartments including crew berths and machinery and communication rooms.

The cause of the collision has not been determined. The Navy previously said there was no evidence it was intentional, or that it was a result of sabotage or cyberintrusion.

Meanwhile the Navy last week said the USS Fitzgerald's captain was being relieved of his command and other sailors were being punished after poor seamanship and flaws in keeping watch were found to have contributed to its collision.

An unidentified body recovered by the Royal Malaysian Navy is transferred to a U.S. Navy helicopter off the Johor coast of Malaysia. Photo / AP
An unidentified body recovered by the Royal Malaysian Navy is transferred to a U.S. Navy helicopter off the Johor coast of Malaysia. Photo / AP

An investigation into how and why the Fitzgerald collided with the other ship was not finished, but enough details were known to take those actions, the Navy said.

There were two lesser-known incidents in the first half of the year. In January, the USS Antietam guided missile cruiser ran aground near Yokosuka base, the home port of the seventh fleet, and in May another cruiser, the USS Lake Champlain from the Navy's third fleet, had a minor collision with a South Korean fishing boat.

Aucoin, a career flight officer, served in five fighter squadrons and flew in more than 150 combat missions, according to Navy biographies. He commanded a carrier air wing aboard the USS Kitty Hawk and a carrier strike group based in Bremerton, Washington.

Before heading the seventh fleet, he was deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

The seventh fleet has 50 to 70 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft and about 20,000 sailors.

- Additional reporting by Associated Press