Tensions Increase while US Navy is Stretched by Corona Virus
In the Mediterranean, Russian aircraft are challenging US Navy air patrols over the eastern Mediterranean. In North Korea, the exact situation is uncertain, but that nation’s capital is locked down and it appears that Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen recently and may be seriously ill. In the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian boats are challenging US Naval and Coast Guard vessels and President Trump has given the Navy permission to shoot Iranian boats that get too close or become threatening.
Finally, a number of Chinese vessels are threatening Malaysian ships in an area that both nations claim. At the same time, China has ordered increased air and naval patrols around the island of Taiwan.
The situation in North Korea is uncertain and Trump has admitted that “we don’t know what is going on.” The capital of Pyongyang is locked down and there are signs of an abnormal situation taking place. Kim was last seen on April 11 at a politburo meeting. Many think he is seriously ill, and the precautions being taken are to ensure a smooth transition.
The problem is that two of Kim’s relatives may have a claim on the leadership. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong is the Vice Director of Propaganda and Agitation for the Workers Party of Korea. At the April 11th meeting, which was the last time that Kim Jong Un was seen, she was reinstated as an alternate politburo member. This has solidified her position as “Number Two” and the likely successor to Kim Jong Un.
However, Kim Jong Un has an older brother, Kim Jong Chul, who was passed over by their father Kim Jong Il because he was regarded as unfit to rule the country. It is possible that he could make a bid for power.
The biggest question is who will control North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems? Could a fight evolve over who controls them and what could that mean to North Korea’s neighbors?
There are American military assets in the area, but the US will be unwilling to move those assets to other hot spots if the situation in North Korea remains uncertain.
The next potential hot spot is Syria. The US Navy accused the Russians of endangering the crew of a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft over the Eastern Mediterranean.
The US Navy’s Sixth Fleet said in a statement that, “The interception was determined to be unsafe because the Sukhoi Su-35 conducted an inverted high speed maneuver, 25 feet facing the mission plane, thereby exposing our pilots and crew to danger.” The air turbulence caused by the Russian aircraft made it difficult for the US patrol aircraft to operate for about 45 minutes.
These unsafe interceptions were more common in the past but have decreased in recent times.
During the Cold War, the Mediterranean was always home to two US aircraft carriers. However, as the number of American aircraft carriers has declined and there has been more focus on the Gulf region, the US Navy can no longer muster the naval air superiority it once did around Syria. This has allowed Russian aircraft to challenge US patrol aircraft, who are likely tracking Russian submarines in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since there are few NATO facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean (now that Turkey is no longer working with NATO) American fighter aircraft cannot react as quickly to these Russian moves.
The US can move the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower into the Mediterranean, but that would take it away from its current position outside the Gulf region. And, as we will see, that is the last place the US Navy wants to leave without enough ship strength.
A bigger threat is the increasing harassment of US Navy warships in and around the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranians. That prompted President Trump to tweet a warning, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
Although the possibility for full blown hostilities to break out in the Strait of Hormuz is slim, the impact on the oil markets will be major. Iran, whose oil industry is a major foreign currency earner, wants to boost the price, which any danger to oil shipping in the Gulf will do. Ironically, the US, which is now a major petroleum producer, is also anxious to keep prices up. And, although the Saudis want to keep their percentage of the oil market, it’s not in their interest in hostilities to break out, especially since they and the UAE have their hands full in Yemen.
However, some analysts in Washington believe that the biggest threat is not Iran, Russia, or North Korea. It is China and its expansionist policy in the South China Sea. There are several reports that the Chinese have made several provocative actions in what Malaysia considers its Exclusive Economic Zone.
China’s survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and 10 Chinese Coast Guard escorts have remained 200 nautical miles off the coast of East Malaysia for several days near a Malaysian oil exploration vessel. The waters are claimed by Malaysia, China, and Vietnam.
The Australian Navy has helped take the pressure off the US Navy by dispatching a frigate to join the three ship American task force.
At the same time, China is making threatening moves towards Taiwan by increasing aircraft and naval patrols around the island nation.
Normally, this threat would call for the US Navy dispatching one of its carriers. In fact, the USS Roosevelt was deployed to the South China Sea before its crew was infected by the Coronavirus
The result is that the US Navy has sent an amphibious ship, the USS America, with its five F-35 fighters and some helicopters to the South China Sea. While the USS America is a potent weapon, it does not have the full range of capabilities of a nuclear aircraft carrier. And it is possibly not as capable as the new Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which sailed into the Pacific on April 13th.
Clearly, the US Navy has left a vacuum in the Pacific that the Chinese are more than willing to fill. However, there is a question about the fitness of the Chinese Navy to carry out its mission after China was hit so hard by the Coronavirus. The Chinese moves could be a bluff.
Another troubling sign is the withdrawal of several B-52s from their forward position in Guam back to the continental United States. They had been positioned there to give the US a strategic fast reaction force in the South China Sea. However, with the USS Roosevelt docked in Guam and unable to rapidly deploy as most of its crew are on shore, the Pentagon decided that it was unwise to place too many strategic assets on the small island of Guam and risk a “Nuclear Pearl Harbor.”
While the US strategic bombers can reach the South China Sea from the United States, it will take longer to reach their target.
Clearly, while the number of aircraft carriers has declined, the number of potential hotspots has grown. The result is that amphibious ships with some fighter aircraft capability are now being forced into roles that were once delegated to full deck nuclear carriers.
The one hope for America is that while the Coronavirus has infected several of the Pacific aircraft carrier crews, the great majority of crew show no signs of the illness. That means that in an instant, it is possible the Western Pacific aircraft carriers could set sail quickly in an emergency. In addition, other ships of the Pacific Fleet have been kept at sea and away from port so they will not be infected with the Coronavirus.
In the meantime, the Trump Administration is committed to increasing the number of Navy warships.
However, if any of these four hot spots blow up, the US Navy will find itself strained in the short term.