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Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Big dog on the block: U.S. ship packs a global punch

November 16, 2008

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— Rear Adm. Rick Wren's office is near the flight deck, above the two nuclear reactors. When the mood strikes, he can take a short walk to the bridge and look out at his new neighborhood, though most of the time that's just blue water from horizon to horizon.

Wren has a unique command.

No country in the world has anything like the USS George Washington. It is a floating air base with 67 aircraft ready to fly; it's a city unto itself, with a population of around 5,000; and it's an armory carrying about 4 million pounds of bombs.

It is, Wren likes to say, the big dog on the block.

And a big part of being the big dog is being seen.

Just two weeks into its maiden voyage in the Pacific, the GW has been to Japan, which is its new home port, South Korea and Guam. It will be at sea probably about half the year, supplied by incoming cargo planes and desalinating its own water.

Down in the hangar bay, the scuttlebutt among the sailors is that a Chinese sub is out there somewhere chasing the carrier and its battle group - a pair of cruisers, plus a sub and a destroyer, which Wren also commands.

Wren doesn't doubt for a minute that he is being watched. That is, after all, part of the game.

But he is coy when it comes to specifics.

"Most of what I do is classified," he said.

Especially when it comes to the other big dog out there - China.

Unspoken words

"Enemy" and even "threat" are words officers aboard the George Washington avoid.

"China" is another.

Wren, the most senior officer aboard, is no exception regarding the first two. But he is quick to talk about China and the challenges it poses.

"This is where the submarines that we look for live and operate," Wren said. "I look for, and count the best I can, Chinese submarines twice a day."

Wren said that when the aircraft carrier is embarked, one of its primary missions is to "sanitize" the seas around it. That means using active and passive sonar, helicopters and a whole slew of secret gadgetry to inspect a large chunk of the surrounding waters for Chinese submarine activity.

"They are tough to hunt," he said.

Encounters rarely are made public. But two years ago, off Okinawa and far from Chinese waters, a Chinese submarine came within torpedo range of the USS Kitty Hawk - the George Washington's predecessor in the Pacific Ocean.

The following year, the Kitty Hawk was at the last minute denied a port call in Hong Kong, and China has never offered an explanation.

Occurring while the Chinese military, and particularly its submarine capabilities, are rapidly modernizing, these and other incidents have left many U.S. military planners concerned.

Traditionally, much of the U.S. focus has been on China's hostility toward Taiwan, which it sees as a secessionist province. As the George Washington began its Pacific cruise, Washington and Beijing were again at odds over a multibillion dollar weapons deal the U.S. had just signed with Taipei.

But Wren said China increasingly presents a broader strategic rivalry.

"Our presence, we believe, adds to the stability and security of the Pacific theater," Wren said. "We all encourage China to become a responsible global participant. But the way they are growing their military is confusing. Why do you need a missile that can go thousands and thousands of kilometers if you are a defensive force? The total number of submarines they have, and their capabilities, sure doesn't point to a defensive or even an 'active defense force,' as they like to call it.

Wren stressed, however, that "no one wants a confrontation with China."

"If we go to war, something very wrong has happened," he said. "I'm not in that business. I am in the business of being prepared."

Commitment to stability

Aircraft carriers are an exceptional weapon.

They cost about $5 billion apiece. Of the Navy's 12, only the George Washington is permanently deployed overseas.

The carrier is the crown jewel of the U.S. 7th Fleet, a huge armada of 60 to 70 ships, 200 to 300 aircraft and 20,000 sailors and Marines, most of whom are, like the George Washington, home based just south of Tokyo so that they can be closer to whatever missions may arise in their area of responsibility.

That is a vast expanse of the globe.

The fleet is responsible for everywhere from the international dateline to the east coast of Africa, pole to pole - in all, 52 million square miles. Within its watery realm operate ships from five of the world's largest militaries - China, Russia, India and North and South Korea.

More than half of the world's population lives within the 7th Fleet's ambit, and the region accounts for more than $435 billion in two-way trade with the United States, more than any other region of the world. Nearly all of the U.S. commerce with Asia moves by sea.

"The balance of power is always shifting, and certainly the influence that this portion of the world has compared to Europe is shifting," said Capt. Karl Thomas, the ship's executive officer. "These countries are growing at a much greater rate than some of the countries in other parts of the world, and certainly there are some - tensions may not be the best word - but frictions."

Strategists like to single out one vital sea lane and one commodity: the Strait of Malacca, and oil.

Each year, more than 50,000 ships transit the strait, which is a major chokepoint for oil being transported from the Middle East to the countries in the Pacific Rim. Closure of the strait, between Singapore and Indonesia, would require nearly half of the world's ships to reroute, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and threaten the flow of more than 15 million barrels of oil per day.

The George Washington's mere presence, Thomas says, is possibly the strongest statement the U.S. can make that it is committed to stability in the region - to keeping that oil flowing and that economy growing.

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