Mon, Oct 02, 2017 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: US carrier patrols S China Sea as tensions mount

Reuters, ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN, South China Sea

An F/A-18 Super Hornet lands on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on Saturday.

Photo: Reuters

As the commanders of the largest US warship in Asia seek to maintain operational readiness amid protracted tensions over North Korea, they find themselves keeping one eye on China, too.

On Saturday, as F-18 Super Hornet jets roared from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier during routine drills deep in the South China Sea, two Chinese frigates maintained a constant line-of-sight vigil.

Officers on the Japanese-based Reagan described frequent close-quarter surveillance from the ships of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in international waters.

Sometimes, Chinese vessels steam in to check out the carrier en route to other destinations, they said.

Other times, Chinese frigates linger for days within the screen of US ships and planes that protect the Reagan — Washington’s only carrier based outside the US.

At times, the carrier crew, to ensure safe passage, would alert their uninvited Chinese escorts, should the Reagan sharply alter course, officers said.

“We’ve had no issues. They’ve been very professional,” said US Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, commander of the Reagan’s strike group, as well as the larger battle forces of the US Seventh Fleet.

“We see them on a regular basis,” he said.

As Dalton spoke, the midnight-blue waters beyond the flight deck made for a crowded scene, with a US and an allied Japanese destroyer also visible as the Reagan maneuvered about 400 nautical miles (748km) from the Chinese coast.

It provided a window into the strains of increased deployments and exercises by regional militaries, in part as they respond to the threat posed by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea last month staged an apparent hydrogen bomb test and fired two ballistic missiles over Japan.

The situation has unfolded as US naval chiefs review operations to draw lessons from four significant accidents within the US Pacific Fleet this year.

A report this month by the US Government Accountability Office highlighted a host of training and maintenance problems as the navy strove to expand overseas deployments and improve operational readiness.

Dalton is soon to lead the carrier to a port call in Hong Kong — the first such visit in three years after a stop by another carrier was denied last year.

China, which claims much of the disputed South China Sea, where Taiwan has virtually identical claims, has long objected to US military operations off its coasts, even in areas Washington says are free to international passage.

Routinely carrying 60 to 70 aircraft on board, the carrier sends 80 to 100 sorties daily — the core of a dominant US military presence in Asia that analysts believe China could still take years to supplant.

In the past few months, the Reagan has exercised with allied Australian ships as well as Japanese forces.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense has announced it will exercise with the Reagan strike group this month.

Dalton acknowledged the challenges and top-level reviews, but insisted the task force was long used to keeping itself in full readiness.

“As a forward deployed force ... we are already where we need to be to execute our missions all the time,” he said.

He did not detail any specific North Korean contingencies, but described Pyongyang’s missile tests and nuclear program as a “growing and concerning danger.”

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