By Park Jaewoo and Lee Sangmin
Fighter jets roared off the aircraft carrier’s flat top into the night, their afterburners glowing.
The scene aboard the USS Carl Vinson – visited recently by Radio Free Asia journalists – came during recent joint exercises by American and Japanese naval vessels in the Philippine Sea that included two U.S. aircraft carriers and one Japanese helicopter carrier.
It was a show of force in a patch of ocean where Chinese provocations have increased, including a collision last month between Philippine fishing boats and a Chinese coast guard ship.
Naval officers aboard the ships said the exercises were simply meant to maintain freedom of the seas and improve cooperation between their navies, not send a warning signal to China or North Korea – at least overtly.
“We don’t have any kind of intention to respond to that kind of frustration,” Rear Admiral Kazushi Yokota of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force told reporters at a joint press conference Nov. 6 aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, another aircraft carrier, also visited by the RFA journalists.
“We just conducted the joint exercise or activities for maintaining the free and operating Indo Pacific Ocean and also for or improving our interoperability, just as our normal activity,” he said.
‘Are we ready? Absolutely’
For its part, China has bristled at the exercises. The state-run Global Times cited Chinese military experts saying the joint drills “tightened the instability of the region, and definitely are not in the interest of the regional countries.”
Come what may, Rear Admiral Patrick Hannafin said the U.S. Navy would be ready.
“We are not directing this exercise for our activities or training against any particular crisis,” Hannafin said during a separate news conference. “Are we ready to respond to any crisis across the world whether it’s this theater or others? Absolutely.”
Radio Free Asia journalists were among several invited by the U.S. 7th Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan, to spend two days aboard ships involved in the exercises earlier this month.
Taken for a helicopter ride over the fleet, the RFA journalists got a bird’s eye view of the two U.S. aircraft carriers – the USS Ronald Reagan as well as the USS Carl Vinson – churning through the water.
Nearby sailed Japan’s Hyuga, a light carrier equipped with helicopters, an Aegis destroyer and a cruiser escort, among other support ships.
All told, the United States has 11 aircraft carriers total, and deploying two to the same exercise is somewhat unusual. Both the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan are Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, carrying about 5,000 crew and more than 60 aircraft, including F/A-18s, with the former ship also carrying F-35s.
The exercises should dispel notions that crises in different parts of the world leave the U.S. overextended, said Harry Harris, the former ambassador to South Korea and a retired admiral who was once commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
“This is a highly visible depiction of America’s resolve and immense capability to defend our national interests and our allies in the Western Pacific,” he said. “It answers those naysayers who believe that the U.S. is overextended in the Middle East and Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Gen. Vincent Brooks, a former commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, said that the exercises underscored the importances of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The US took advantage of two carriers available to practice naval operations in the area,” said Brooks. “The US is a global power and presumptions of the US being distracted are dangerously ill-founded.”
The exercises are meant to reassure American allies in the region and dissuade potential adversaries in different regions simultaneously, said Patrick Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific Security at the Hudson Institute.
“Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) forces regularly conduct peacetime confrontation operations designed to make the United States, Japan, the Philippines, and others feel anxious and uncomfortable,” he said.
“Beijing wants others to comply with their wishes and to change any behavior they dislike.”