Major U.S. Navy exercise in the Atlantic targets unmentioned Pacific power

Special to

By Donald Kirk

NORFOLK, Virginia — The U.S. Navy is conducting new large-scale exercises from its naval base here in a show of force with broad implications for the Pacific as well as the Atlantic.

While the U.S. plays down its military operations in northeast Asia, warships from Naval Station Norfolk, the largest U.S. navy base in the U.S., opened “surface warfare advanced tactical training” with cruisers and destroyers joining in a program designed “to increase combat capability, lethality and interoperability,” according to the Naval Surface and Mine War-fighting Development Center.

Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Downing, right, an Anti-Submarine Warfare/Surface Warfare (ASW/SUW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI) from mentors Lt. Cmdr. Kris Yost on Nov. 9. / Petty Officer 3rd Class Jesse Marquez Magallanes

The display of raw military power in the northern Atlantic has implications for U.S. operations in the Pacific though the navy this year has sharply reduced exercises that might upset South Korea President Moon Jae-In’s efforts at reconciliation with North Korea. Until this year, U.S. aircraft carriers, destroyers and cruisers regularly joined U.S. air force, army and marine units in massive war games intended to persuade North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un of the wisdom of ceasing to threaten the U.S. with nuclear warheads launched by intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The current exercise here bears a remarkable similarity to the war games played by U.S. warships before South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In opened his peace offensive in which he’s met three times with Kim and sought to persuade the U.S. to scale down its own shows of force. A major element in these exercises was deployment of mock “assassination teams” whose job was to kill Kim and his aides.

Related: Report: China, with 2-decade buildup, has ‘long-term strategy’ for supremacy, Nov. 20, 2018

There was no indication as to whether President Donald Trump was in favor of the current exercises – or even knew about them. Trump cancelled war games that the U.S. was to have conducted with its South Korean ally this year after meeting Kim Jong-Un in their summit in Singapore in June but has not commented on exercises being conducted from the naval base here by elements of the carrier strike group led by the carrier Abraham Lincoln.

The latest exercises here represented an escalation in the efforts of U.S. forces to flex their muscles in the face of threats not only from North Korea but also from the middle east and Russia. The exercises also had implications for U.S. defiance of China’s claim to the entire South China Sea where U.S. ships regularly defy China’s orders to leave.

Rear Adm. Dave Welch, commander of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting center said the surface warfare advanced tactical training exercise “represented the beginning of an important cultural shift to the surface fleet to rapidly increase surface force tactical proficiency, readiness and combat capability.”

Welch was quoted in Flagship, a Navy paper published here, as saying the exercise “provides a critical path for warfare and strike group commanders to develop the combat capability needed….to compete effectively in an era of great power competition.”

The clear inference to be drawn from the exercise was that U.S. forces were showing their muscles on the east coast in order to be ready for the need to use them anywhere. The exercise, while ostensibly entirely a navy operation, also coordinated with air and ground forces in the type of multi-service effort that the Pentagon had previously conducted off the South Korean east coast.

Navy Capt. Joe Cahill stressed the full scope of the exercise. “While our headquarters is located in San Diego (on the west coast),” he said, “we have divisions on both coasts and team members in most fleet concentration areas.”

Cahill said these forces were “committed to increasing the combat power of naval surface forces, with focus on warship cohesion.” It was, he said, “a team-based approach to what a warship is designed to do – fight and win at sea as part of a naval task group.”

But who, exactly, are these warships targeting as their enemy? The U.S. faces no hostile forces off the Atlantic Coast that might be comparable to those of China and North Korea in the western Pacific. While relations between the U.S. and Russia are clearly strained, there has been no sign of an overt Russian effort to challenge U.S. domination of the Atlantic along with forces of America’s allies in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Naval officers spoke proudly of all that they were training to do while avoiding concrete examples of whom they were training to fight against.

Lt. Commander Kris Tester, an officer tasked with planning air and missile defenses, described “working with and training…to harness combat potential” of warships in the exercise as “one of the highlights of my job….”

The whole purpose of surface warfare advanced tactical training, according to the Naval Surface and Mine War-fighting Development Center, was “to increase the lethality and tactical proficiency of surface force across all domains.”

By avoiding any reference to specific countries against which they might be training, the war-fighting center sought to avoid any language that might be seen as “provocative” or designed to increase tensions, but there was no doubt the current exercises were being conducted with a view of defense against rising Chinese power thousands of miles away.