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US Navy sends subs to sea as message to China

USS Alexandria (MC1 Jason J. Perry/U.S. Navy)

The Pacific Fleet Submarine Force took the unusual step this month of announcing that all of its forward-deployed subs were simultaneously conducting “contingency response operations” at sea in the Western Pacific — downplaying the notion that Navy forces have been hampered by COVID-19.

The sub force said the missions were mounted in support of the Pentagon’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy aimed at countering China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

At least seven submarines, and likely more — including all four Guam-based attack submarines, the San Diego-based USS Alexandria and multiple Hawaii-based vessels — are part of the effort.

The action also highlights the Pentagon’s desire to be flexible and unpredictable in “great power” competition with China and Russia.

“Our operations are a demonstration of our willingness to defend our interests and freedoms under international law,” Rear Adm. Blake Converse, Pacific sub force commander, who is based at Pearl Harbor, said in a May 8 release.

Attack submarines maintain an outsize stealth capability to sink ships with torpedoes, fire Tomahawk cruise missiles and conduct covert surveillance while keeping adversaries guessing their location.

The Navy recently has maintained a flotilla of warships in the Western Pacific as a show of force and proof that COVID-19 hasn’t significantly degraded its capabilities, with the United States and China long trading barbs over military activities in the South China Sea and increasingly so over each other’s pandemic response.

China has been accused of intensifying its occupation of man-made islands and bullying other nations in the region while much of the world has been focused on the pandemic.

Geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor said that the U.S. and China have maintained a “robust operational pace in the South China Sea” amid heightening tensions and COVID-19 — signs that point to continued escalation after the virus wanes.

When the Navy advertises the presence of its usually unseen submarines, it’s often to make a point with an adversary. The Navy released a photo of the Los Angeles-class sub Alexandria transiting Apra Harbor in Guam on May 5.

As the U.S. military addresses COVID-19 at home, “we remain focused on our national security missions around the world,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the same day.

“Many countries have turned inward to recover from the pandemic, and in the meantime our strategic competitors are attempting to exploit this crisis to their benefit at the expense of others,” Esper said.

He accused the Chinese Communist Party of ramping up a “disinformation campaign” to shift blame for the virus and burnish its image. All the while, “we continue to see aggressive behavior by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in the South China Sea, from threatening a Philippine navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development.”

Esper said two Navy ships conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea the week before “to send a clear message to Beijing that we continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations large and small.”

The guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill conducted a “FONOP” in the Spratly Islands, and the destroyer USS Barry sailed twice through the Taiwan Strait and through the Paracel Islands in disputed territory that China claims as its own.

“These provocative acts by the U.S. side … have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident,” the South China Morning Post quoted a Chinese military command saying after the Barry’s Paracel passage.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has been sidelined in Guam since late March after experiencing an outbreak of the new coronavirus among its 4,800-member crew.

U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor has been quick to note the ongoing deployment of other assets in the region, including transits of the South China Sea by the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords, the destroyer USS Rafael Peralta sailing in the East China Sea and the destroyer USS McCampbell passing through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday.


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