US aircraft carriers are taking new routes into the South China Sea, Chinese think tank says

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.

US carrier strike groups entered the South China Sea 10 times in 2021, compared with six times in 2020 and five in 2019.
Use of alternative routes between islands may be designed to evade PLA radars and indicates skill diversification for US sailors, defence experts say.

The US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups have not only increased South China Sea transits since last year, but their routes and drill patterns are becoming more complicated and unpredictable, according to a recent study.

Defence experts said the changes could indicate new countermeasures devised by the strike groups to face any contingencies in the region, such as a potential attack on Taiwan by Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army, or over South China Sea territorial disputes.

Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. It is also one of the rival claimants to several small islands and reefs in the busy shipping lanes of the resource-rich South China Sea. The US demands freedom of navigation in the region.

The USS Carl Vinson CSG completed a five-day joint drill with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) around the disputed Spratly Islands on Saturday, kicking off their 2022 naval schedule two weeks earlier than last year, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a maritime strategic study unit affiliated to Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research.

USS Carl Vinson the South China Sea.

“The US military have drastically reinforced their military deployment in the South China Sea since last year, in terms of training scales, sorties and scenarios,” SCSPI director Hu Bo told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) on Friday.

“USS [US ship carrier strike groups] entered the South China Sea 10 times last year, compared with six times in 2020, and five in 2019, with their training patterns becoming more complicated and unpredictable.”

In the past, the US warships used to enter the region via the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Taiwan, but their routes and operation time spans had become diversified since last year, he added.

Navigation records and satellite images show that the strike groups had tended to pass through narrow waterways between the Philippine archipelagos on their way to the region, including the Balabac Strait off Palawan province, a channel between Verde Island and Mindoro, and other points, the CCTV report said.

In the latest transit last Tuesday, the CSG led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier entered the region via the Balabac Strait to team up with the Essex ARG, a landing helicopter dock group, according to the US Navy.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the US strike groups appeared to be trying to come up with new countermeasures to the PLA’s anti-access strategies aimed at stopping foreign military interventions in waters off Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

A press conference in the hangar bay of US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson while anchored in Manila Bay, Philippines, November 30, 2010.

“I believe the US Navy is trying to escape the over-the-horizon (OTH) radars systems on the three artificial islands of Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, which has targeted US warships and aircraft [before],” Lu said, referring to Beijing’s three artificial islands in the Spratlys.

“The US Navy can use the geographical features of the Philippines to approach the region and suddenly appear somewhere out of the PLA’s expectations, because the OTH radars have limitations when it comes to monitoring approaching objects from a group of archipelagos.”

The USS Carl Vinson strike group fleet includes destroyers, frigates, submarines and supply ships. The new approach of warships sailing between island groups would also require US sailors to boost their skills in traditional terrestrial navigation, Lu noted.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the new movements and choices of route were in keeping with the dynamic force employment concept implemented by the US Navy.

“Instead of using only those traditional routes, the increased use of lesser-known, alternative routes would reduce predictability with respect to the direction of movement of US military assets,” Koh said.

“This thereby increases operational and strategic flexibility in times of peace and contingencies. Such contingencies would include the Taiwan Strait scenario to be sure.”

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