Enter Title

Looking Across the Pacific from a US Aircraft Carrier

July 15-19, 2018

Terry McCarthy

The USS Carl Vinson.

The United States is increasingly shifting its strategic focus away from the Atlantic and towards the Pacific, largely due to the rise of China. To get a fresh perspective on how the US is making this shift, a group of LAWAC Board and top donor members flew to Hawaii from July 15th-19th for an overnight embark on one of the US aircraft carriers that patrols the Pacific, the USS Carl Vinson. The group also had a series of discussions with senior officers from the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), the military’s unified command overseeing the Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as talks with some civilian Asia experts based in Hawaii.

The biggest take away from our visit? The US is clearly still the most dominant military force in the region - by several orders of magnitude. But Washington urgently needs to bring its economic and diplomatic activities into alignment with the military’s approach to Asia, which means working with our allies around the Pacific Rim, rather than alienating them.

Our trip was timed to coincide with the biannual RIMPAC exercises, the biggest naval exercises in the world that this year brought together the navies of 25 countries who are formal or informal allies of the US. There were 46 ships, 5 submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel involved in the exercise, which focused on threats from a fictitious country in the Pacific region.

LAWAC President and CEO Terry McCarthy.

Having mostly arrived on Sunday evening, July 15th, our first official meetings were on Monday morning at the East-West Center, a non-partisan think tank focused on Asia that is housed on the University of Hawaii campus. There, David Stilwell, a former fighter pilot and one-time US defense attaché in Beijing, cautioned that China’s rise is increasingly in conflict with western liberal democratic values, because it is focused on a backwards-looking vision of rejuvenating the greatness China enjoyed during the Tang and Ming dynasties in centuries past. “They see our democratic systems as direct threats to their authoritarian system,” said Stilwell. He said that, nonetheless, the US should seek a way to channel China’s growth, rather than try to contain China along some Cold War model, which would likely only further antagonize Beijing. “It is different from the Cold War, when the USSR was an existential threat.” The US should welcome China’s growth, while at the same time making it clear that we expect them to act responsibly and according to global rules.

North Korea expert Denny Roy said that there is a growing view that the US “got played” at the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, since the US offered to stop military exercises in South Korea in exchange for no meaningful concessions by the North Koreans. “North Korea comes out ahead because we have already seen some softening of the sanctions,” said Roy, and also North Korea no longer feels the threat of a potential preemptive US military strike. However, Roy said that progress might still be made if Kim’s advisers have persuaded him that continuing along the path of nuclear development and confrontation with the US will ultimately lead to a slow death for the secretive regime, which desperately needs to reform its economy.

On the environmental front, Victoria Keenan told us that the number of fish in the oceans of the world has halved since the 1970’s. The peak ocean catch was reached in 1996 and has been going down every year since then, as fishing boats struggle to find fish to haul in. She also showed us a map of the two great Pacific Ocean plastic garbage gyres - enormous patches of floating bags and other plastics that are the size of Texas and don’t easily degrade, choking and killing marine life.

We went from the East-West Center to the headquarters of USINDOPACOM, which oversees 235,000 sailors, marines, soldiers and air force personnel across half of the world’s surface from the west coast of the US to the west coast of India. We met the new commander, Admiral Phil Davidson, and his deputy, General Bryan Fenton, who laid out what they see as their four main challenges in the region: China, North Korea, Russia and terrorism. With regards to China, they pointed to the increasing militarization by China of small islets in the South China Sea - three of which now have 10,000-foot runways capable of landing large Chinese military aircraft. China wants to make the whole area defensible, said General Fenton - “winning without war”. But he said that some $1 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea annually, and the US is determined not to allow that trade flow to be interrupted, hence the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) that the US Navy carries out, sailing close to the Chinese installations and their accompanying ships to make it clear the US military will not be intimidated in the region. The US is also encouraging other friendly navies, including Australia, the UK and France, to join it in these FONOPS maneuvers.

LAWAC travelers on the USS Carl Vinson.

On Monday afternoon our group was taken on a tour of the USS Cheyenne, a Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine that was moored in Pearl Harbor. Commissioned in 1996, the 360-foot long submarine has 150 crew members with 15 officers, all of whom pack themselves into a space not much larger than a single-family row house with narrow corridors, low ceilings and no windows. And they spend up to 90 days at a time continuously submerged, making their own water and their own oxygen, silently patrolling under the ocean. We squeezed ourselves down the hatch and into the body of the submarine - no place for those with claustrophobia - and marveled at the bunks tightly stacked together, each one shared by two or three men since they sleep in rotation, a system called “hot bunking.” The submarine operates on a continual roster of three 8-hour shifts. The largest flat surface in the sub is the officer’s dining table, which seats six people and also doubles as the operating table should the medic need to use it for an emergency operation while they are underway. In the enlisted men’s mess - where even the space under each seat is used for storage - was a plaque on the wall, which said: “So it’s not home sweet home. Adjust.” As for the submarine’s mission, it has four torpedo tubes and 12 Tomahawk cruise missile launch tubes that can be fired from under the water anywhere. Unsurprisingly, the Navy is notably reticent in providing details about where its submarines are sent to patrol.

On Tuesday morning we headed to Hickam Air Force Base to board our flight out to the USS Carl Vinson - leaving behind the confines of a submarine for the enormity of a supercarrier, the largest ship in the US Navy’s fleet. The USS Carl Vinson, commissioned in 1982, was the first US carrier to be named after someone who was not a US President. Carl Vinson (1883-1981) was a congressman from Georgia who was elected 26 times, was a passionate supporter of the Navy and was one of the main architects of the Two-Ocean Navy that the US has maintained since the Second World War. The Vinson is 1,092 feet long, as high as a 24-story building and carries 5,000 personnel and about 70 aircraft. The carrier generally sails with a group of other ships - a cruiser, several battleships and other smaller vessels - to provide for its security. The carrier itself has only one principal function - to launch and safely retrieve its F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, which can fly 600 miles (much further with refueling planes) and deliver lethal payloads wherever they are required.

We flew out to the Vinson not on a 1,000 mph F-18 (they only have a maximum of two seats), but on the slower C-2 Greyhound turboprop (200 mph), known as the COD, for carrier onboard delivery. These planes are designed uniquely to transport cargo and passengers from shore to the aircraft carriers and back, with up to 26 passengers, who sit facing backwards. They land and take off just like the F-18s, so we experienced the thrill of hitting the deck of the carrier at speed and feeling the tailhook catch one of the four wires running across the deck that arrested the plane, pushing us all back into our seats for a couple of stomach-churning seconds, before we realized that we were indeed still on the deck of the carrier and not headed over the side into the water. (Every passenger is wearing a life jacket and a protective helmet called a cranial just in case something goes wrong, but the Navy pilots are pretty good at what they do and practice hard to stay that way.)

LAWAC board member Dan Eberhart with
enlisted man Ward on the Naval aircraft
carrier (Photo credit: Dan Eberhart).

On board, we were given a tour of some of the 20 different departments on the massive ship, which has its own hospital, a dental team with five dentists, a ship-board newspaper and TV channel, repair shops for the myriad of parts that can wear out or break down on board and kitchens that prepare 20,000 meals a day. The carrier, like the submarine, is powered by a nuclear reactor, so 600 of the personnel are tasked simply with looking after the reactor, a classified operation that civilian visitors and even many of the sailors on board are not allowed access to. We were given a tour of the ship’s weapons’ magazine, where they showed us an array of 500lb-2,000 lb bombs, laser-guided Hellfire missiles and other, larger missiles, including one long white missile with very few external markings, which they told us ominously was sufficient on its own to take out an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are also working on a similar weapon.

We visited the enormous hangar space that stretches almost the entire length of the ship underneath the flight deck, where many of the planes are stored and where a lot of the maintenance is performed on them. Four enormous elevators can raise these planes up onto the flight deck when they are needed. This hangar space also functions as an open-air gym for off-duty personnel, and one of the only places on the ship where you can get some fresh air without the strong smell of aviation fuel that is everywhere on the flight deck itself.

In the afternoon we were taken up to the flight deck, kitted out with double hearing protection, to watch the jets take off and land - truly a remarkable experience. First, we were amazed at how close one is to the planes - we stand maybe 10 yards away from a 40,000 pound F-18 jet as it revs up its engines, turns on its afterburners and then is shot off the deck by a steam catapult that accelerates it from 0 to 130 knots in 2 seconds. Less than a minute later another one is airborne. And then another… There are four catapults and when they need to get planes in the air in a hurry they can launch one every 30 seconds. Meanwhile they can have planes coming in over the back end of the deck to be trapped on a wire, stopping only a matter of feet from a plane that is getting ready to take off the front. The personnel on deck all wear different colored shirts - green for the mechanics, purple for the fuel providers, red for the weapons loaders, yellow for the “shooters” who determine when the plane is ready to launch and the catapult is shot. They all move around quickly, making an array of hand signals to communicate amongst each other and with the pilots - the noise of the engines precludes shouting instructions. It is a remarkable choreography, dealing with powerful and lethal machinery operating at the very extremes of performance with apparently almost no margin for error, and they carry this off day and night with extraordinary skill and reliability. No other navy in the world can operate at the tempo of the US carriers, and no other navy has yet learned how to take off and land at night. There is a reason the Chinese are scared of US aircraft carriers.

(Watch a video of F-18's landing and taking off of an aircraft carrier here. The video is very loud so please adjust your speakers accordingly.)

Travelers exploring the bridge of the USS Carl Vinson.

Earlier this year, Beijing was apoplectic when the Vietnamese government invited this very ship, the USS Carl Vinson, to pay a friendly port call to Da Nang - the first time a US carrier had visited Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Captain Brian Schrum, the XO (second in command), told us over dinner that the Vinson’s trip to Vietnam was directed by the President, and months of planning were put into making sure it went off smoothly without any problems. The carrier anchored off shore for four days and many of the crew went ashore and overnighted in local hotels, much to the delight of the Vietnamese, who have pragmatically put memories of the war behind them and welcome US support in their growing feud over territorial waters with China. The Vinson has a history of being at the center of global attention - in 2011 it was the ship that disposed of the body of Osama bin Laden, after he was shot dead by Navy Seals in Abbottabad in Pakistan.

After a night sleeping right under the flight deck and listening to planes thundering overhead until tiredness overcame us, we woke at the 6 am reveille wake-up call. After breakfast, we visited one of the pilots’ briefing rooms, where Lieutenant Matt McDonald talked about flying an F-18 at over 1,000 mph (“honestly inside the cockpit you don’t feel the speed”) and how the digital control system meant that the pilot did not have to keep thinking about aligning all the different control surfaces on the wings and the tail, and could focus on the mission objective. When asked what the most important character attribute for a carrier-based fighter pilot was, he replied “ability to accept criticism.” Every landing on the carrier is critiqued and rated by experienced pilot/instructors who stand on the deck right beside the landing strip as each plane comes in. Each pilot’s ratings are posted openly, with points taken off for coming in awkwardly on an approach, for not landing right on the center line or for missing the wires and having to go around and approach again. McDonald says the system of constant criticism keeps the pilots working to the highest standards, which is vital given the dangerous nature of their jobs. He also said that pilots have to be able to handle stress and compartmentalize. “We are high strung, but we don’t let anyone else know.” He acknowledged that there was a risk of pilots becoming arrogant, but said the Navy was pretty good at weeding those people out. One of the controls over egos getting overly large is the fact that both the captain and the XO of aircraft carriers are traditionally fighter pilots themselves and not sailors. They understand the risks of pilots thinking too much of themselves and know how to deflate it.

After finishing our last briefing, and having bought all the t-shirts, hats and medals that were available onboard, we got back into the COD for our catapult launch off deck and into the sky for the flight back to Hawaii. By the time we landed, the adjective that seemed on everyone’s lips was the same - “awesome!” Thus does the US Navy project itself across the Pacific and around the world. But as the military constantly say, they train and arm themselves in the hope they will not have to go to war, which is precisely the reason why the US needs to think hard about how it engages diplomatically and economically with China and other countries around the Pacific.

At the air base, the group ran into Jeff Gorel, Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles (center, in uniform), who was there for RIMPAC (Photo credit: Jeff Gorel).