Asia Defense

The Real Significance of the US Carrier Group Fiasco   

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Asia Defense

The Real Significance of the US Carrier Group Fiasco   

A public diplomacy nightmare obscures the significance of the incident and what it says about U.S. commitment to the region.

The Real Significance of the US Carrier Group Fiasco   
Credit: US Navy Photo

The USS Carl Vinson, one of ten American 100,000-ton nuclear-powered supercarriers, was a regular feature of international headlines last month—and for all the wrong reasons. It was the source of an embarrassing, if overhyped, mishap when the Donald J. Trump administration announced on April 8 the carrier was being ordered to the Korean peninsula amid a bout of escalating tensions with Pyongyang. You can imagine the uproar when the Carl Vinson was spotted sailing away from the Korean Peninsula more than a week later.

What the administration initially failed to convey was the carrier would continue its schedule of planned exercises with the Australian Navy before diverting north, and the early notice was given in part to alert visiting families of U.S. sailors that the carrier wouldn’t be conducting a pre-scheduled port call in Perth, Australia. The unfortunate lapse in public diplomacy largely overshadowed the deeper significance of the Carl Vinson’s Western Pacific tour and the insights it offers into America’s evolving regional security footprint and the now-late U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.

The Obama administration’s oft-criticized signature Asia initiative, first unveiled in late 2011, was plagued by two seemingly contradictory perceptual problems almost from the outset. The rebalance was pilloried by Chinese analysts as a façade for an aggressive American containment strategy. In fact, many in Beijing continue to insist the surge in regional tensions of recent years can be traced directly to the rebalance and America’s “Cold War mindset.” For domestic critics and America’s regional partners, the initiative was just as frequently dismissed as ill-defined and lacking real teeth — as high on symbolism but short on substance.

Reality fully supported neither perception. But in international affairs, the former is often subservient to the latter. In fact, the rebalance was designed at least in part to shape perceptions: to reassure partners and allies of America’s long-term commitment to regional security. Ironically, on this count it not only fell short in many capitals, but it may have had the opposite effect.

Thanks in part to uninspired and under-resourced public diplomacy regarding the nature, scope, and intent of the rebalance, an initiative designed to clarify and reassure may have obscured and overshadowed what, on balance, has been a fairly robust evolution to America’s Pacific posture.

More Than Meets The Eye

Popular descriptions of the rebalance often recall the U.S. commitment to allocate 60 percent of U.S. naval forces to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 paired with a handful of signature initiatives. They include: the rotational deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia; the transfer of Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore; and a Maritime Security Initiative directing hundreds of millions of dollars in capacity-building assistance to America’s regional partners.

However, these moves represent only a small fraction of recent changes to the U.S. military’s regional footprint. A more holistic assessment would account for other capacity-building initiatives, like the ambitious $9 billion program to upgrade the Anderson Air Force base and Naval Base Guam. It would also account for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement the United States signed with the Philippines, permitting it access to five Filipino military bases.

It would also recognize the significant moves undertaken by the United States with some of its newer partners. With Vietnam, for example, a ban was lifted on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam as U.S. warships returned to Cam Ranh Bay for the first time since the Vietnam War. Hanoi, in turn, has agreed to host U.S. Army equipment caches for humanitarian assistance missions.

While the Bush administration is credited with the initial rapprochement, since 2011 the pace of U.S.-India defense and strategic cooperation has accelerated substantially. Milestones reached in recent years include the co-development of defense platforms, the signing of a modified Logistics Supply Agreement, an expansion of the annual Malabar exercises, intelligence sharing on submarines in the Indian Ocean, and cooperation on sensitive military technology like aircraft carriers and jet engine technology.

Elsewhere, U.S. Pacific Command has, among other things, strengthened missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan; ordered the first permanent deployment of F-35B fighters to the Marine Corps’ Iwakuni air station in Japan, and; launched the first continual presence of strategic bomber aircraft at Guam in two decades, including the B-52, B-1, and B-2. The latter marked the first time all three [types of bombers] were deployed to the Pacific.

Even this list barely scratches the surface, omitting new U.S. outreach to the defense ministers of ASEAN, new military exercises with Malaysia and Indonesia, new bilateral and trilateral security dialogues with multiple regional partners, and the development and deployment of new U.S. military hardware to the region. As PACOM chief Adm. Harry Harris notes, “Thanks to America’s strategic ‘rebalance’ everything that’s new and cool in the U.S. military arsenal is coming first to the Pacific.”

I plan to offer a more comprehensive account of these changes in a forthcoming project under development. But, for now, let’s return to the Carl Vinson and what it tells us about one of PACOM’s newest initiatives.

Third Fleet Forward

The International Date Line (IDL) that bisects Pacific Ocean also frames the administrative division of America’s massive Pacific Fleet. The Seventh Fleet, headquartered at the port of Yokosuka near Tokyo, Japan, is responsible for operations west of the IDL, including “everything between Hawaii and the India-Pakistan border.”

The San Diego-based Third Fleet operates east of the IDL and is principally occupied with homeland defense. With America’s only permanently forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the Seventh Fleet is the most powerful naval force in Asia. Yet its sole aircraft carrier strike group and 80 surface ships pale in comparison to the Third Fleet’s four aircraft carriers and over 100 vessels.

Traditionally, in the event Third Fleet assets were deployed west of the IDL command was transferred to Seventh Fleet. However, in 2015 U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift unveiled a new “Third Fleet Forward” concept, questioning the need for “such allegiance to the international date line.” He subsequently issued new guidelines that represent a “blurring of the [IDL] demarcation,” allowing the Pacific Fleet to better utilize the aggregate strength of 200 ships, 1,200 aircraft and 140,000 sailors.

PACOM says the initiative will help leverage the capabilities of both Fleets “to complement one another and provide the foundation of stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” It has begun involving Third Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Nora Tyson in more regional diplomacy initiatives, including the Japanese International Fleet Review in 2016. Adm. Tyson says Third Fleet Forward helps ensure there’s “connective tissue” between the two Fleets. Specifically, in the event of a conflict scenario involving the Seventh Fleet, the Third Fleet will be better positioned to “provide that command element to handle whatever else may happen in the Pacific Fleet AOR” including a “maritime security issue in the South China Sea.”

PACOM wasted little time operationalizing the concept. In 2016, the Third Fleet dispatched — and retained command of — a three-ship Surface Action Group (SAG) to the South China Sea. The seven-month deployment involved bilateral exercises with South Korea, France, and Japan. In October 2016 one of the SAG vessels, the USS Decator, conducted a Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands to challenge excessive Chinese maritime claims there. It was the first FONOP conducted in Asia not under the Seventh Fleet’s command and the first time since World War II the Third Fleet conducted operations in Chinese-claimed waters.

Amid these developments, in January 2017, the Third Fleet commanded the Carl Vinson-led carrier strike group on a multi-month deployment to the South China Sea. After exercising with the South Korean and Japanese navies in March, it reached the port of Singapore in early April before exercising with the Australian navy and most recently reaching the Sea of Japan.

The Third Fleet Forward initiative looks prescient amid the current showdown with Pyongyang but the initiative was arguably driven as much by China’s rapidly-advancing indigenous aircraft carrier program as it was North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. China’s hardline Global Times has argued Third Fleet Forward reveals “that the Seventh fleet alone can hardly deter China in the West Pacific anymore.”

Looking Ahead

When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, many in Washington suspected the rebalance’s days were numbered. Speaking just days before the president’s inauguration, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, was asked about the fate of the initiative. “I don’t know if we’re going to change the name,” he mused, “but the military component of the rebalance… that has already happened.”

While the Trump administration officially confirmed the death of the rebalance in a March 14 State Department press conference, the spirit of the initiative has endured in the administration’s first 100 days.

Since early February the U.S. has deployed one dozen F-22s to a military base in northern Australia, the largest-ever deployment of the world’s most advanced fighter to the region.

PACOM later dispatched three U.S. attack submarines to the Western Pacific, including at least one to the South China Sea. While on patrol, the submarines “tested four Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles during a nuclear war exercise, sending the simulated weapons 4,200 miles from the coast of California into the mid-Pacific.” According to NBC, it marked the “first four-missile salvo since the end of the Cold War.”

The Trump administration is entitled to re-evaluate, re-brand, and reform whatever initiatives it sees fit and perceptually America’s regional strategy could benefit from a well-designed makeover. In doing so, however, the Trump administration should avoid the temptation to reflexively reject the rebalance as a failed relic of the Obama era and preserve operational elements of the initiative that were sound and long overdue. Meanwhile, the recent episode with the Carl Vinson should serve as a timely reminder that the effectiveness of any new strategy will likely hinge on the cogency of the public diplomacy employed to support it.