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Asia allies need to adapt to US Navy's nimbler, unmanned future

Japan, South Korea and Australia must review their weapons and operations

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt operates in the Philippine Sea on May 21, following an extended visit to Guam in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the need for change in the operation of the world's navies, as infections in the crowded, small quarters of ships surge.

Not only are crew members expected to work in small, unventilated spaces, they are also kept together over months, exposing them to each other's germs. The U.S. Navy reported more than 2,000 active infections in its ranks as of the end of May, accounting for roughly 40% of cases in the military.

Of the U.S. Navy's 11 aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and three others were forced to suspend operations as a result of widespread infections since March. This is worrying for Asian governments as the U.S. Navy, crippled by these infections, had not been able to deploy aircraft carriers to the region to keep an eye on countries like China.

The Roosevelt was anchored in Guam until May 20 as its crew members were quarantined and the ship disinfected while the other three aircraft carriers have gradually resumed operations.

The U.S. is still a world leader and a superpower partly because it controls the seven seas with the world's strongest navy. This dominance is backed by its fleet of aircraft carriers, each of which can transport dozens of fighter jets and is capable of immediately launching all-out attacks anywhere in the world.

But the coronavirus outbreak paralyzed those ships for a time.

It is not only the U.S. navy that has faced the problem. The Chinese Navy has not released information about infections on its fleet, but a retired Japanese Self-Defense Force officer said he believed infections would have also been rife on board.

Others familiar with the situation in China agreed and sources said Beijing had postponed some navy exercises and many officers, including commanders, were quarantined for a time.

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in a military drill in the western Pacific Ocean in 2018.   © Reuters

Yet, having emerged from the outbreak earlier than the rest of the world, China has been stepping up provocative activities in Asia since April. An aircraft carrier undertook a drill exercise on April 12 near Taiwan, and Chinese patrol vessels entered the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands, chasing Japanese fishing boats.

Experts said China was taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the U.S. aircraft carriers in the region, while a Japanese government official said China could be "intentionally taking a hawkish stance" to draw attention away from internal troubles.

These incidents highlight the need for navies of major powers to be better prepared to face crises, like the pandemic, in the future.

Given the practicalities of the traversing the distance between the U.S. and the Asian regions, the U.S. Navy faces bigger challenges in controlling outbreaks on its ships than the Chinese.

Discussions in the U.S. Defense Department suggest that the U.S. Navy is focusing on its long-planned reforms.

First, the U.S. Navy will increase the ratio of smaller vessels in its fleet that will allow it to distribute and disperse its forces more easily than the traditional huge ships like aircraft carriers.

Second, it will increase the use of drones, unmanned submarines, unmanned vessels, as well as implementing artificial intelligence in military technology.

An MQ-1B Predator Unmanned Aerial System vehicle that was deployed in Afghanistan   © Reuters

Third, it will introduce more virtual drills using advanced technology including simulators.

These ideas were already in the works before the pandemic. In the second half of the 2010s, the U.S. Navy introduced a strategy of "distributed lethality" that disperses the navy by increasing the use of smaller warships.

The navy plans to increase the number of ships to 355 by 2034 from the current 289. The initial plan was to increase the number of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, but there is now a drive toward the use of unmanned and small vessels, a point made by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis in a Bloomberg commentary.

Yet, it is uncertain how fast and extensive the shift will be. Crews and pilots are expected to oppose the move that will cost their jobs. The defense industry, which has focused on building large vessels including aircraft carriers, would also be unlikely to throw their weight behind such plans.

However, such opposition should not throw the U.S. and its allies off course though, as their actions have deep implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has not only developed unmanned weapons rapidly, it has also been spending huge amounts of money on large warships. It is constructing its third aircraft carrier after having completed more than five destroyers last year.

If the vessels in the U.S. fleet are increasingly unmanned and smaller, U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia must closely and carefully coordinate with the U.S. so as to continue to be effective in deterring any acts of aggression by China.

The Japanese Self Defense Forces and the Australian and South Korean military will also need to transform their weapons and operations in the same vein as the U.S. Navy. Without such efforts, these allies will find it difficult to collaborate with the U.S. and to keep a belligerent China at bay.

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