The U.S. Navy recently sent an aircraft carrier strike group and an amphibious ready group consisting of two large deck warships, dozens of aircraft, and thousands of sailors and Marines into the South China Sea, apparently for the first time ever.
Last week, the U.S. Navy sent the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group – consisting of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and her accompanying ships, aircraft, and sailors – and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group consisting of the USS Boxer amphibious assault ship and a Marine Expeditionary Unit of more than 2,000 Marines into the strategically important body of water.
The Navy said it had no records showing a carrier and amphibious operation of this kind in the South China Sea before, and the last time two aircraft carriers conducted operations there together was on August 17, 2001.
“While we do not have anything in our records that speaks to a carrier and amphib operation in the South China Sea, our Marine and Navy forces routinely operate together in the Indo-Pacific region,” Lt. Anthony Junco, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, told Breitbart News.
“The most recent dual-carrier operations in South China Sea we could find record of was conducted on 17 August, 2001 and included the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and the now decommissioned USS Constellation (CV 64),” he said.
The U.S. naval and Marine forces conducted “joint, high-end warfighting exercises,” including with live fire, to “increase battle readiness,” according to an official Navy report on the recent operations.
Specifically, the Navy and Marine teams practiced “maritime strike operations, search and rescue operations, fast attack craft defense, maritime interdiction operations, small arms and crew-served weapons live-fire drills, air defense and anti-submarine warfare operations.”
Although China was not named, the Navy commander in charge of the operations alluded to deterring those who challenge U.S. and allied values.
“Our operations in the Indo-Pacific are focused on maintaining regional stability and security,” Rear Adm. George Wikoff, commander, Task Force 70, said in the Navy’s report. He added:
Our presence reflects our commitment to the values we share with the many partners and allies in the region, and we stand prepared to deter those who challenge these mutual values with the overwhelming force of our combined carrier and amphibious strike groups.
Navy Rear Adm. Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7, said the “flexibility of our forces in the Indo-Pacific is a key to our lethality.”
Kacher said in the Navy report:
Our ability to join together the incredible capability of a carrier strike group, combine it with the expeditionary combat power of our Navy-Marine Corps team, and then integrate with our extensive network of allies and partners provides us a true competitive advantage.
The U.S. Navy has conducted dual-ship operations in the South China Sea before, but with smaller ships. In 2015, the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth partnered with the destroyer USS Lassen for presence operations in the South China Sea, according to the Navy.
The recent South China Sea operations took place as Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver visited the region last week, first going to China, then Vietnam, and then Japan.
“It’s a very important and consequential time in the region and what we’re trying to do to compete effectively with China,” he said Tuesday at the Jamestown Foundation’s ninth annual China Defense and Security Conference.
“The United States is of course a Pacific nation,” he said. “But for some people, I think you need a little reminding that we are a Pacific nation.”
The operations also occurred as the U.S. and China square off in various arenas. President Trump has made good on his campaign promise to get tough with China on its unfair trade practices with the U.S., including theft and forced transfers of U.S. intellectual property.
The Trump administration has also made China and Russia the focus of its national security strategy versus the Middle East. It has stepped up U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea, including around land features China has built into islands and placed military equipment on — which violated a promise the Chinese president made to former President Barack Obama in 2015.
The Obama administration had stopped those patrols in the South China Sea between 2012 and 2015 out of concern of upsetting Beijing. But one of the first things the Trump Pentagon did in office was to lay out a plan for recurring patrols near the contested land features, known as freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), as reported first by Breitbart News.
The administration also began to publicly announce patrols through the Taiwan Strait, for the first time in about a decade, as also reported first by Breitbart News.
However, there is still ample concern over China’s rapidly expanding naval fleet and its increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, which approximately 30 percent of international trade passes through.
“Today, China has the second-most capable blue water fleet in the world in terms of modern warships,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, currently a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses.
He said China currently has on a day-to-day basis about 270 ships that can shoot missiles or torpedos. The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is forward deployed in the region, has between 19 and 27 such ships, he said. “Just in ship firepower, the Chinese have serious overmatch,” he said.
He predicted China’s blue water navy would have around 400 ships by 2035, if it expands at the same rate it has in the past 15 years. In contrast, the U.S. plans to have 355 ships by 2034, he said.
“China is on the way to a world class Navy, there’s no question about it,” he said. “The maritime issues [are] going to be a major facet in our broad systemic rivalry with China — a rivalry that I believe is here for the very long term.”
Schriver said China has been trying to rebrand its activities in the region, but its behavior and activities are still “quite robust and of concern to us.” He said:
For example, the incursions into the Vietnamese [Exclusive Economic Zone]. In Japan, they talk about an improving relationship…but in fact the same level of activity is occurring in and around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — the same naval and maritime militia and coast guard activities into Japanese territorial waters.
“So I think the rebranding is underway but the activities and the behavior is still of concern to us,” he said.
The U.S. Navy’s recent South China Sea operations were publicized in a tweet from its official twitter account, and its chief spokesman, Adm. Charlie Brown, retweeted it, along with a message.
“We stand prepared to deter those who challenge these mutual values with the overwhelming force of our combined carrier and amphibious strike groups,” he tweeted.
He later told Breitbart News: “We don’t often have two big decks in the same area to train together, so it’s noteworthy when we do.”
The recent operations were not considered FONOPs, since the U.S. ships did not sail through waters within 12-nautical miles of a nation’s shore.
The Reagan Carrier Strike Group includes the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), “America’s Flagship,” the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers, and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15.
The Boxer Amphibious Ready Group includes the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), “America’s Golden Gator,” a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship, a Harpers Ferry-class amphibious dock landing ship, and the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
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