Carrier in the Yellow Sea

News that the USS George Washington was being deployed to the Yellow Sea prompted one Chinese forum to ask “what is China supposed to do to counteract the U.S. deployment of its megasized carrier in the Yellow Sea (“China’s front yard” as commonly said), which is seen by many military staff as an intolerable provocation on China’s sovereignty ? — knock it flat?” The carrier was deployed in part to send a ‘signal’ to China from President Obama that his resolve is unshaken by the North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island.


A statement from the Navy’s Seventh Fleet says the USS George Washington strike group will join with South Korean naval forces in the Yellow Sea for a joint exercise that will begin this Sunday and last through Dec. 1. In addition to the carrier, the cruisers USS Cowpens and USS Shiloh and the destroyers USS Stethem and USS Fitzgerald will also participate in the exercise.

But the background to the exercise is part of the story. The Yellow Sea is a relatively small body of water sandwiched between the Korean Peninula and the Chinese coast, which Beijing regards as its front yard. It is also the where the rival forces come to size each other up. The Yellow Sea was where a North Korean mini-submarine sank the Cheonan. More recently, it was where an island was bombarded by North Korea, setting off the current crisis. That crisis had been simmering since the sinking of the Cheonan.

In partial response to the torpedoing of the South Korean warship, an anti-submarine exercise had been scheduled for August, despite howls of protests from the North. “The South has warned the North it will not tolerate provocations during the five-day naval drill in the Yellow Sea, being staged in response to what it says was a deadly North Korean torpedo attack on a warship. This is the largest anti-submarine exercise in our military history, involving the army, navy, air force and marines,” a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) spokesman told AFP.” The Chinese themselves engaged in muscle flexing in the area. According to Defence Talk, “China last week staged a large naval and air exercise on its southeast coast — just as South Korea and the United States conducted their own naval drill — and on Tuesday launched large-scale air defence manoeuvres.


Not only was the Yellow Sea a flashpoint between North and South Korea. In a larger sense is a testing place between the US and China, between anti-submarine warfare technology and littorally oriented submarines.  Those submarines make it dangerous for a carrier to venture into enclosed waters. The USS George Washington had been slated to participate, but following the sinking of the Cheonan, its participation had been canceled. According to the Stars and Stripes of Aug 19, 2010:

U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten said North Korea has been advised of the upcoming exercise.

The Navy announced earlier this month that the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that operates out of Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, would be exercising in the Yellow Sea sometime this year but was not more specific.

Oten said Thursday the carrier will not participate in the upcoming exercise. The George Washington participated in last month’s U.S.-South Korea Invincible Spirit exercise in waters between South Korea and Japan, the first in a series of exercises being held in response to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan.

As late as September 4, 2010 the ships slated for the exercise were: “the guided missile destroyers USS Curtis D. Wilbur and USS Fitzgerald out of Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan; the USNS Victorious, an ocean surveillance ship; a fast-attack submarine; and P-3C Orion aircraft from Patrol Squadron NINE, based at Kaneohoe Marine Corps Base in Hawaii, according to a USFK news release. South Korea’s navy participation was to include two destroyers, a fast frigate, a submarine, a patrol craft, and P-3C aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 6, according to the release.”


Still no carrier. Now for some reason the USS George Washington is back, and the political as well as naval stakes are higher than ever. A Major General Luo Yan is reported to have implied sending a US carrier into the Yellow Sea was like spitting in China’s face:

“George Washington” went to the Yellow Sea aircraft carrier to participate in the US-ROK military exercise, “indeed a threat to us.” The carrier of the detection, observation radius can cover in North China. Cover an entire aircraft carrier battle groups in North China, the Liaodong Peninsula region, far to detect Lanzhou. Joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea, as an aircraft carrier with a strong ability to detect early warning, “tantamount to seeing a sea of China overturned.”

US carriers are vulnerable to diesel electric submarines of the sort possessed by China and North Korea in confined waters like the Yellow Sea. Diesel electric submarines are relatively slow and short-ranged. On the open ocean they are too slow and short-legged to hunt and chase a carrier. They have to wait until a carrier blunders into its lair. But in confined waters, especially in those where the targets announced they are to venture, nuclear carriers give up their strengths, while submarines like those of North Korea can effectively become slow-moving, nearly unhearable mobile minefields waiting in ambush for the giant American naval airfields. The USN is aware of threat and practices against similar subs from South Korea and Japan.


Diesel electric submarines from Japan and South Korea stalked the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan in the final phase – simulating a growing undersea worry as nonallied nations build up their stock of quiet subs in the Pacific. Speaking to reporters yesterday, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Richard Hunt said the training encounters were still being reviewed, “but I will say that the Reagan did very well — moved quickly and smartly out there at sea.” He added, “The diesels (submarines) that came are incredibly capable and presented tremendous challenges throughout the exercise. (They) provided some of the best training that we had.”

Published reports are not encouraging. Some suggest the USS Ronald Reagan was sunk in simulated exercises against these stealthy subs. In the Yellow Sea there may be plenty of these conventional submarines and the line between simulation and reality will narrow indeed.

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However, the USN may have a few classified tricks up its sleeve. The Asia Times reports that China is afraid that a secret US anti-submarine surveillance system, integrating acoustic and nonacoustic data, has made the Yellow Sea “transparent”.

the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – operator of the US spy satellite fleet – is planning multiple satellite launches, and China must assume that one or more of these new US surveillance satellites will help support US Navy efforts to locate and track PLAN submarines.

Satellites form a network along with undersea sensors and detectors fixed on the sea floor or drifting in the open ocean as well as devices mounted on other submarines, ships, unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). … In the late 1990s, sub-hunting satellites made headlines. An American scientist, Peter Lee, was caught and convicted of passing sensitive information to China about the so-called Radar Ocean Imaging (ROI) joint project which involved the United K and the US. A decision by the US Navy based on concerns about further disclosures about the nature and scope of the ROI project echoes to this day.

“Peter Lee’s case was they had this guy giving this very sensitive data to the Chinese on underwater detection of submarines. They ran into this case where the navy wouldn’t allow a court case against him because of the data. So they had a bargain plea, and he got off, basically. For stealing very high-level stuff, he gets probably, what, a couple of months in a halfway house,” former US ambassador to China, James Lilley, told PBS in 2004.


The deployment of the USS George Washington may be a chance for the USN to see whether its new ASW tactics and techniques work. Putting the carrier out there is like setting a giant piece of cheese for mice. China would probably give anything to know what the USN sees in the coming exercise, as they and the North Koreans will undoubtedly sortie their assets. If the USN has indeed made the Yellow Sea transparent they will endeavor to keep that capability secret against the day when they may have to use the knowledge in deadly earnest.

But it is a high stakes gamble. The USS George Washington may also be operating within the firing envelope of a Chinese ballistic missile designed specially to destroy aircraft carriers. There is no doubt that US assets are going to be looking for its targeting radars and deciding whether or not their secret countermeasures and defenses, perhaps even directed energy defenses, can handle it. As the Chinese general put it, assets from the carrier can look into North China and see what they can see. One of the things it will certainly be looking for is the DF-21/CSS-5.

Last week, Adm. Robert Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), made an alarming but little-noticed disclosure. China, he told legislators, was “developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 [medium-range ballistic missile] designed specifically to target aircraft carriers.” …

If they can be deployed successfully, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles would be the first capable of targeting a moving aircraft-carrier (.pdf) strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. And if not countered properly, this and other “asymmetric” systems — ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, torpedoes and sea mines — could potentially threaten U.S. operations in the western Pacific, as well as in the Persian Gulf.


The Navy is running risks for information. At least the public can rest assured that these naval secrets will be kept confidential and not traded away in the process of diplomatic engagement with hostile powers in order to extract dubious promises. Even though diplomats fancy themselves guardians of the peace, in reality aggression is largely kept in check by individuals who have few illusions, some strength and many, many secrets.

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