While the service has been conducting integrated, dual-carrier attack training for quite some time in the region, the continuation signals a decided effort to sustain major combat power projection amid continued U.S.-China tensions.
The training operations, according to a Navy report, are taking place in the highly contested South China Sea to bring “endurance, maneuverability and firepower” to the area.
The Navy report describes the U.S. presence in familiar terms, saying it is intended to clearly demonstrate that the “U.S. resolve to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Nonetheless, while a consistent, strong Naval presence in the area is by no means unprecedented, dual-carrier attack training does bring a particular attack capability to the Pacific.
“These carrier strike groups incorporate the capabilities of embarked fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, Aegis guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, and attack submarines,” the Navy report states.
A larger concentration of integrated Carrier Air Wings, Destroyers and Cruisers massively expands the possibility of launching a large, coordinated attack. Naturally, the Navy consistently refers to these kinds of training exercises as “deterrence” and not offensive operations in any way, they would enable the U.S. Navy to fire a huge salvo of long-range, precision-guided Tomahawk missiles at multiple targets simultaneously. Two Carrier Air Wings could not only enable expansive and dispersed air attacks but also greatly expand integrated surveillance and defensive operations.
Furthermore, upgraded Flight IIA DDG 51 destroyers are also being armed with lasers and increased computerized networking intended to help share information between ship group radars, aircraft and even guided weapons systems.
For instance, an aerial node such as a carrier-launched Hawkeye surveillance plane could operate as an airborne sensor able to relay target data between dispersed, yet integrated Carrier Strike Group Ships.
Therefore, newer networking technology, enabled by coordinated sensing, radar integration and ship-mounted layered defense systems enables carrier strike groups to expand their defensive envelope. For example, multiple Aegis radar systems, combined with a sphere of destroyer-fired SM-3, SM-6 and SM-2 interceptor missiles introduce an expanded protective envelope for carriers, should they be faced with enemy attacks.
While an actual U.S.-China exchange of fire may seem quite unlikely, the increased U.S. presence is being mirrored by stepped-up Chinese maritime movement in the South China Sea area. For instance, China has been basing weapons on claimed territories in the South China Sea and also operated two carriers in tandem; the Chinese recently operated its first indigenous aircraft carrier alongside its legacy carrier in the vicinity. In fact, China’s first indigenous carrier, the Shandong, has been conducting sea trials near the South China Sea in preparation for operational service.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article appeared earlier this year.