As the Wuhan Coronavirus (COVID-19) ravaged much of the world, and America’s Pacific aircraft carrier fleet appeared sidelined in recent months, China dramatically increased its naval presence in the South China Sea and menaced Taiwan. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed its two new, small aircraft carriers simultaneously, deployed aircraft to the Spratly Islands, harassed Malaysian ships, and further reinforced its illegal military outposts on its man-made islands.
While the U.S. deployed numerous surface warships, including the USS America (LHA-6) amphibious assault ship “Lightning Carrier,” to the South China Sea to perform Freedom of Navigation Operations (FNOPS), and conduct joint training with allied nations such as Australia, no U.S. supercarriers have been operating in the Pacific for months (RELATED: U.S. Fleet Gains Powerful New Ally to Counter China).
That has now changed in a big way.
On Thursday, three U.S. carrier strike groups were spread out across the Indo-Pacific. According to the Associated Press (AP), the USS Theodore Roosevelt strike group previously sidelined due to COVID-19, is operating in the Philippine Sea near Guam, the USS Nimitz strike group is in the Pacific off the U.S. West Coast, and the USS Ronald Reagan has left port in Japan and is operating in the Philippine Sea.
In addition to the supercarriers, each strike group includes cruisers, destroyers, jet fighters and other aircraft. These three carrier battle groups are in addition to dozens of other Navy warships already deployed around the Pacific.
As noted by AP, “this is the first time in nearly three years that three U.S. aircraft carriers are patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters and is a massive show of naval force in the region. It is also a sign that the Navy has bounced back from the worst days of the coronavirus outbreak.”
The AP added, “The unusual simultaneous appearance of the three warships…comes as the U.S. escalates criticism of Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong and its campaign to militarize human-made islands in the South China Sea.”
China experts see this as a warning to China not to mistake a momentary lull in U.S. carrier operations with any long-term lessening of US capability or resolve. As Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said to AP:
“There have been some indications in Chinese writings that the United States was hit hard by COVID-19, that military preparedness was low, so perhaps there is an effort by the United States to signal China that it should not miscalculate.”
I would say it is not “perhaps” but a certainty this is a warning to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Rear Adm. Stephen Koehler, director of operations at Indo-Pacific Command also told the AP that while it’s not likely there will be three carrier strike groups consistently in the Pacific over the long term, “it’s something we can do when we want to.”
The Admiral added, “Carriers and carrier strike groups writ large are phenomenal symbols of American naval power. I really am pretty fired up that we’ve got three of them at the moment.”
I am pretty fired up as well, and am sure the CCP and PLAN are too, though in a very different way.