Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

US Navy Conducts Dual Aircraft Carrier Exercises in South China Sea

U.S. aircraft carriers simulated multiple sorties against enemy bases in the South China Sea.

Ankit Panda
US Navy Conducts Dual Aircraft Carrier Exercises in South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton

The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz carrier strike groups carried out operations and exercises in the South China Sea on Saturday, according to the U.S. Navy. The operations were meant to “support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the U.S. Navy said. It did not specify the location of the exercises.

“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,“ said Admiral George M. Wikoff, who spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the exercises.

Part of the exercises this weekend involved the simulation of multiple carrier air wing sorties against enemy bases, according to the Wall Street Journal’s report. The exercises mark the first time the U.S. Navy has conducted such exercises in the South China Sea with two aircraft carriers.

U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carriers like USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz are capable of operating more than 75 fixed wing aircraft, depending on the configuration of the flight deck.

The exercises came days after those of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and China Coast Guard in the waters southeast of China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The Hainan Province Maritime Safety Administration had announced a maritime exclusion zone ahead of the exercises.

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The latest U.S. Navy exercises underscore the United States’ ongoing interest in maintaining a presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, despite the Chinese military’s growing footprint in the region.

Since the South China Sea became a major flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific amid China’s assertiveness over its claim beginning in the Obama administration, the U.S. Navy has insisted that it would conduct military activities where legally permissible by international law.

As part of this effort, the Obama administration in 2015 began conducting freedom of navigation operations to assert navigational rights in disputed waters. The Trump administration continued and accelerated this practice.

In recent months, the U.S. Navy has maintained operations in the South China Sea despite the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, for the first time since 2017, the U.S. Navy simultaneously operated three carrier strike groups in the Pacific.

Aside from USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt was also active in the region. In March, USS Theodore Roosevelt was temporarily put out of commission after a major onboard COVID-19 outbreak, resulting in more than 1,100 infections and the death of one sailor.