IN a move aimed at bolstering confidence among the United States’ East Asian allies, steps are under way to better unify the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The US 3rd Fleet will become increasingly active in the Western Pacific, an area traditionally the purview of the forward-deployed 7th Fleet. Word of the 3rd Fleet’s evolving role was revealed June 14 by the Pacific Fleet’s commander, Adm. Scott Swift, in an exclusive interview in Nikkei Asian Review. The announcement was designed, in part, to assuage Tokyo’s concern over the escalation of Chinese rhetoric and activity directed against Japan in the East China Sea.
The increased presence of vessels from the 3rd Fleet, which primarily covers the Eastern and Northern Pacific, in the Western Pacific is not groundbreaking in itself. Since its foundation during World War II, the 3rd Fleet has formed the core of power projection deep into the Pacific in times of need. Currently, the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, nominally under 3rd Fleet command, is operating deep in the Western Pacific, participating in the Malabar naval exercises alongside Japan and India. In April, a Surface Action Group from the 3rd Fleet consisting of three destroyers also set out on a seven-month deployment in the Western Pacific. What the US Navy is looking to improve is the integration of the 3rd and 7th Fleets, which will result in additional 3rd Fleet deployments in the Western Pacific as well as a flexible command structure that helps erode the artificial boundary between the two fleets, set at the International Date Line in the middle of the Pacific.
The 7th Fleet is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan, and is the largest forward-deployed fleet in the US Navy. It is also the only forward-deployed fleet to include an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, supported by a large force of cruisers and destroyers. The combined 3rd and 7th fleets make up more than two-thirds of the US combat vessel fleet and include approximately 200 ships and 1,200 aircraft. The United States is keen to hone such a potent combined force in the Western Pacific as it seeks to reassure allies and deter potential foes.
To underscore the rising importance of the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet in US Pacific strategy, Swift pointed out that he had sent Adm. Nora Tyson, the fleet’s commander, to serve as his representative at several events in Asia, including the Japanese International Fleet Review that was held in Japan in October—normally a task for the commander of the 7th Fleet. At the Japanese International Fleet Review, Tyson, speaking on Swift’s behalf, also gave an interview to Nikkei in which she emphasized the need to “blur the international date line,” showing that Swift’s initiative to boost the 3rd Fleet’s activities west of the 180th meridian has developed over months.
The Pentagon’s ultimate aim is an increased presence and capacity to respond in the Western Pacific at a time of growing concern over Chinese maritime developments and North Korean provocation. A key part of the presence is to reassure allies in the region, particularly treaty allies South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
An increased pace of US naval deployments to the Western Pacific won’t go unnoticed by Beijing. China is carrying out its own naval buildup amid growing reliance on sea lanes for trade. However, Beijing’s forceful claims on the South and East China Seas have been met by increasing US opposition, including freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, meant to undermine what many see as China’s excessive maritime claims. As the US and other navies across Asia increase their patrols during a period rife with maritime disputes, Washington seems convinced that for its patrols to have the desired effect, they must be backed by the combined might of the US fleets in the Pacific.
– © 2016 STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE