PEARL HARBOR (Hawaii) — The United States Pacific Fleet commander said he plans to expand the role of the 3rd Fleet — traditionally responsible for the defence of America’s west coast and Alaska — into the Asia-Pacific amid signs of growing militarisation in the region.
The US Navy has not been taking full advantage of 3rd Fleet capacity and capability, Admiral Scott Swift said on Wednesday (April 27).
The 3rd Fleet leaders can help out the 7th Fleet, which is already busy in the Asia-Pacific region, he added. “The future is very unpredictable. If we hit that capacity point, we don’t want to find ourselves for the first time asking the question, well, let’s see what we can do with 3rd Fleet. We need to start those actions now,” said the commander.
The Pacific Fleet consists of the 3rd Fleet, which is headquartered in San Diego and the 7th Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan. For decades, the 7th Fleet has taken command of 3rd Fleet ships when they cross the international dateline.
But Adm Swift said he plans to have 3rd Fleet commander Vice-Adm Nora Tyson and her staff maintain operational control of some of these ships when they travel west. For example, he says the 3rd Fleet could lead the Navy’s response to a tsunami while the 7th Fleet focuses on Japanese earthquake relief.
The first sailors to deploy under this arrangement were scheduled to leave Pearl Harbor on Wednesday. Their ships — the USS Momsen, based in Everett, Washington, and the USS Decatur and USS Spruance based in San Diego, California — are deploying together as a surface action group.
Adm Swift said the new arrangement will not mean more 3rd Fleet ships will be deploying to the region. The number of ships deploying should stay the same.
The Navy’s announcement comes a day after the release of an annual Pentagon report that said the US military conducted freedom of navigation operations against 13 parties last year, including several to challenge China’s claims in the South and East China Seas.
The operations were against China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, the Maldives, Oman, the Philippines and Vietnam, said the report. It did not specify how many such operations were conducted against each of the territories.
The report came amid news that a Japanese warship sailed into a Philippine port near the disputed South China Sea waters in another sign of deepening security ties between the former foes to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing.
The US military has repeatedly conducted freedom of navigation operations disputing China’s maritime claims in recent years, and did so again in 2015, a year in which Beijing’s island-building activity in the resource-rich areas of the South China Sea led to rising tensions in the region. The aim is to demonstrate that the international community does not accept such restrictions.
Adm Swift said on Wednesday that Vice-Adm Tyson had already taken on more duties in the region, for example, representing him at a review of Japanese naval forces in October. The 7th Fleet commander was unable to be there because he was supporting an exercise in South Korea.
Vice-Adm Tyson also recently met Australian and New Zealand navy leaders during visits to those countries.
Adm Swift said he plans to have the 3rd Fleet take an active role in Talisman Sabre, a US-Australian exercise that takes place every other year.
Captain Charles Johnson, the commodore of the three-destroyer surface action group set to leave Hawaii on Wednesday, said sailors on the ships will not notice any difference in the deployment with the 3rd Fleet maintaining operational control.