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LCS to Boost U.S. Presence in Disputed South China Sea

The speed, maneuverability and shallow draft of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship makes the platform well suited for the South China Sea, Pentagon leaders said while releasing a new Asia-Pacific maritime strategy document.

"The LCS is ideally suited for a role in the South China Sea. It is fast, light and flexible and it has a fifteen foot draft so it can go places other vessels cannot go. We plan to have four LCS ships in Singapore on a rotational basis by 2018," David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told reporters on Friday.

The service has long planned to rotate the ships through Singapore as part of the Pentagon's shift to the Pacific. However, the increasing LCS fleet size underscores the potential value of the platform in the South China Sea region, where there are many shallow ports inaccessible to larger-draft ships.

The Navy is preparing to receive four more of its shallow-water Littoral Combat Ships between now and February, effectively doubling its current fleet and paving the way for more deployments.

On Aug. 11, the Navy formally accepted delivery of LCS 6, the USS Jackson, during a ceremony at the Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Ala.

Following this delivery, the service is preparing to accept delivery of LCS 5, the USS Milwaukee, in October of this year and the USS Montgomery, LCS 8, in December of this year, Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson recently said.

On the heels of these deliveries, the Navy plans to receive the USS Detroit, LCS 7, in February of next year, he added.

"By early next year, the Navy will be operating eight littoral combat ships and we'll be accepting four more by the end of 2016. The Navy will continue to accept ships at that rate for the next several years making the LCS class the second largest surface combatant class in the fleet and the key to our ability to operate in shallow, coastal waterways around the world," Johnson recently told Military.com.

Shear explained that stepping up LCS missions in the South China Sea is part of a broader strategic effort to maintain presence and patrol the area in light of China's recent efforts to build artificial land structures in the contested Spratly Islands.

China's island building, referred to by Pentagon officials as land reclamation, has been ongoing effort to further fortify their territorial claims in the region. Pentagon officials have said the China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres of area over the last 18 months, more than all other claimants in the region combined.

In June, Pentagon officials publicly acknowledged that China was placing weapons on the reclaimed islands.

"Our approach to the South China Sea has been robust. We have engaged China repeatedly at the highest levels to implement a permanent halt to reclamation. We of course have a very strong and persistent military presence designed to maintain peace and stability," he said.

The Spratly Islands includes an area of more than 750 reefs, small islands and atolls in the South China Sea off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Highly disputed for centuries, the area is rich in oil and natural gas. Countries claiming rights to territory in the Spratly Islands include China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei.

Shear referenced an ongoing congressional effort to add funds to the 2016 defense bill slated for arming and training U.S. allies in the Pacific.

The South China Sea includes strategically vital waterways, important to international trade. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has criticized China's artificial island-building and said the U.S. would not be deterred by China's moves.

"China has said it has stopped reclamation but it is not clear to us if they have stopped or are just finishing up. There is the potential for militarization of these features. We call for a permanent halt to all of these activities. The U.S. does not recognize the sovereignty claims of these artificial islands," Shear said.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide." Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."

Shear added that the U.S. would continue to step up its military presence in the area and work closely with allies in the region. He cited the deployment of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and two new missile-defense capable destroyers to Japan. Furthermore, the Navy's new high-tech DDG 1000 Zumalt-class destroyer is slated for the Pacific.

"US forces currently present in the South China Sea conduct a variety of presence operations. We are in the South China Sea on a regular basis," Shear said.

Shear also added the Navy's new P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane will also continue to help military efforts in the Pacific. "We have a vested interest in ensuring that territorial claims are resolved peacefully," he explained.

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