A United States Navy carrier strike group and amphibious ready group are drilling in the South China Sea in the service’s latest effort to test how the formations can operate together with their respective platforms.
The Nimitz CSG and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group ARG started performing “integrated Expeditionary Strike Force (ESF) operations” on Saturday, according to a U.S. Navy news release. The Navy did not disclose how long the two groups would operate together.
“The 13th MEU, combined with the amphibious capabilities of the ARG, enables the NIMCSG to employ the versatile capabilities of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. This seamless naval integration established a powerful presence in the region, which supports peace and stability,” the release reads. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit is embarked on the Makin Island ARG.
Official social media pages of the Nimitz CSG, Makin Island ARG and the 13th MEU hinted at the joint exercise last week by continuously posting infographics of their composition throughout the week and tagging each other in the posts.
The ESF operation is “part of the Noble Fusion campaign of learning and experimentation for Seventh Fleet, III Marine Expeditionary Force, and the greater Navy and Marine Corps team. Task Force 76/3 is an experimental organization formed from the merging of Task Force 76 and 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade, to support naval integration and staff operations,” according to the release.
Even before Noble Fusion began, the Navy has been experimenting with how amphibious assault ships with embarked F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters can integrate with carriers, USNI News previously reported. In June of last year, USS Tripoli ( LHA-7) participated in exercise Valiant Shield with carriers USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76).
Nimitz CSG units participating in the drills include aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) with embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17, and destroyers USS Decatur (DDG-73), USS Chung-Hoon (DDG-93) and USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108). Cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) and destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) round out the CSG, but the two ships are likely currently detached from the group, with a Navy release last week stating that Paul Hamilton conducted a joint sail with Indian Navy patrol vessel INS Savitri (P53) in the Indian Ocean on Feb. 7.
The Makin Island ARG units taking part in ESF include amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) and amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD-23). The embarked 13th MEU includes Battalion Landing Team 2nd Marines, 4th Battalion, Combat Logistics Battalion 13, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 362 (Reinforced), and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122. Amphibious transport dock USS John P. Murtha (LPD-26), which rounds out the Makin Island ARG, is currently in Dili, Timor Leste for the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) – Timor Leste exercise.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Monday issued a statement stating that a China Coast Guard ship directed a military-grade laser light at PCG patrol vessel BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) on Feb. 6. Malapascua was supporting a rotation and resupply mission for the Philippine Navy (PN) in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea as a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 5205 directed a military-grade laser light at the patrol vessel. Ayungin Shoal, known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal, is where the Philippine Navy deliberately grounded landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) to stake its claim to the shoal and to serve as an outpost there that is manned by a garrison of a dozen Philippine Marines.
According to the statement, as Malapascua reached a 10 nautical mile distance from Ayungin Shoal, the CCG vessel was sighted approximately 4 nautical miles off the ship’s dead ahead, maneuvering from the port side and heading toward the starboard side. The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to the crew on the bridge. The Chinese vessel also made dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter. According to the Philippine Coast Guard, Malapascua altered course from Ayungin Shoal and headed toward Lawak Island to continue its maritime patrol and support patrol vessel BRP Teresa Magbanua (MRRV-9701) for the PCG’s own rotation and resupply mission to its sub-stations in the Kalayaan Island Group.
“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” reads the statement, which went on to say that the CCG in August also prevented PCG ships from coming closer to the Ayungin Shoal while providing security to a PN resupply mission. In that incident, CCG 5205 and CCG 5102, together with the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM), formed a 13 nautical mile radius blockade, with Sierra Madre as its reference to prevent Philippine government ships from reaching the ship. The statement added that in this particular mission, it was clear that the CMM vessels took orders from the CCG to prevent the Philippine ships from entering the shoal and that the CMM deployed their utility boats to support the blockade and shadowing by the CCG.
“The PCG will continue to exercise due diligence in protecting the country’s territorial integrity against foreign aggression. The Armed Forces of the Philippines can always rely on the PCG to support their resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal. Despite the dangerous maneuver of the much larger CCG ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the PCG ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights” PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio M Abu said in the statement.
Last February, Australia accused a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship of illuminating a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) with a laser while PLAN ships were sailing in Australia’s northern Economic Exclusion Zone and the RAAF P-8 monitored them. China denied the accusation and said its ships always operate safely and professionally.
Meanwhile, in Japan on Sunday, the Japanese Ministry of Defense issued a news release stating that around 12:50 a.m. local time that day, a PLAN Shupang-class hydrographic survey ship was sighted sailing northward in an area near Japan’s contiguous zone south of Yakushima Island, which is part of the Osumi Islands archipelago south of the main island of Kyushu. The hull number included in the release identified the ship as CNS Zhu Kezhen (20).
At around 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, the PLAN ship entered Japanese territorial waters southwest of Yakushima Island and subsequently at around 4:10 a.m., the survey ship left Japan’s territorial waters northeast of Kuchinoshima Island and sailed westward, according to the Japanese MoD release. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) fast attack craft JS Shirataka (PG-829) and a JMSDF P-1 MPA of Fleet Air Wing 1 based at JMSDF Kanoya Air Base, Kyushu and a JMSDF P-3C Orion of Fleet Air Wing 5 based at Naha Air Base, Okinawa shadowed the PLAN survey ship.