As tensions with China simmer in the region’s waters, US Navy commanders face a potential shortfall in Asia sea power in the coming weeks.
The USS Ronald Reagan, based in Japan, is expected to head to the Middle East in the coming days to support US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, according to two unnamed US officials.
Analysts, however, say the move could leave a gap in US carrier coverage in East Asia at a time when Beijing is increasing pressure on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
According to Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, China may use the US deployment as evidence that Washington is unable to fulfill its military commitments in Asia.
“To be sure, it’ll be delightful fodder for Beijing’s propaganda machine,” Koh said, adding that the US could be without a carrier in Asia for months.
“There will be shared concerns among other regional governments about the ‘hole’ in the US military posture in the region during this carrier absence,” he said.
In the South China Sea last year, an F/A-18E Super Hornet flies over the flight deck of the carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
Leaving a gap in carrier coverage in Asia, according to Thomas Shugart, a former US Navy officer and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, appears to be contrary to stated US defense priorities.
“Given that our most recent National Defense Strategy indicated a clear prioritization of the military challenge from China over continuing involvement in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is a bit of a surprise to see our only aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific pulled away from that priority theater,” Shugart said.
The Reagan is the US Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, based in Yokosuka, Japan, near Tokyo. It is the largest and most visible asset of the US military in the Indo-Pacific.
The Reagan and the USS Nimitz were both operating in the region last summer, including conducting exercises in the South China Sea. After nearly a year at sea, the Nimitz arrived in Washington state in March.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt performed maneuvers in the South China Sea earlier this year, but it returned to its homeport in San Diego this week.
Each of the nuclear-powered, 1,100-foot-long, 97,000-ton US Navy aircraft carriers has a 75-strong air wing, including F/A-18 fighter jets.
According to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan, having the Reagan based in the Indo-Pacific cuts transit time to contingencies in the region by an average of 17 days when compared to carriers arriving from the continental US.
Meanwhile, China has two aircraft carriers: the Liaoning, which is based in Qingdao, and the Shandong, which is based in Sanya, on the island of Hainan, on the northern edge of the South China Sea.
Despite claims to parts of the 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, China claims nearly all of it as its sovereign territory.
In recent months, the People’s Liberation Army has conducted numerous maneuvers in the South China Sea. According to a report from the state-run Global Times, the PLA’s warplanes “rained down thousands of munitions at maritime targets” as part of a regular exercise to demonstrate combat readiness earlier this week.
China has also slammed the presence of US warships in the South China Sea, claiming that such deployments exacerbate tensions and jeopardize regional peace and stability.
Despite the appearance of losing a carrier in Asia, Carl Schuster, former chief director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said the US has other assets it can call on.
According to Schuster, a US amphibious assault ship based in Japan carries F-35 fighter jets and could fill in in Asian waters temporarily.
He also mentioned that there are other ways to project power.
“While the Reagan is away, I expect the Air Force to send bombers through the South China Sea. Although it won’t have the same physical presence as a carrier, it will send the same political message “According to Schuster.
The Reagan’s absence from East Asian waters could coincide with a visit to the region by a UK Royal Navy carrier strike group led by the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s largest warship. Last weekend, the UK carrier left England in a flotilla that included a US guided-missile destroyer, carrying US Marine Corps F-35 fighters as well as British versions of the same jets. On its way to Japan, it is expected to pass through the South China Sea in late summer.
“Given that the entire (UK) carrier strike group is also augmented with American and Dutch assets and personnel, it would be a useful tool for signaling US allied solidarity in the region while there’s no (US) carrier,” said Koh, the Singapore-based researcher.
The Reagan recently left its homeport in Japan to conduct crew training at sea. Former US Navy officer Shugart believes that returning the Reagan to Asian waters as soon as possible after its deployment to the Middle East would be beneficial.
“Hopefully, this (deployment) will be for a limited time period as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan proceeds, and once it is complete the Ronald Reagan strike group can return its focus to contending with the truly remarkable expansion of Chinese naval and air power that has been underway in recent years,” he said.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said on Wednesday that no details about any planned deployments would be released.
“We don’t talk about potential future operations. We certainly don’t talk about potential ship movements in advance,” he said.