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U.S. Submarine in Asia Trip as Obama Seeks to Assure Allies

By Sharon Chen
April 29, 2014 12:25 AM EDT 231 Comments
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS North Carolina sits moored at Changi Naval Base in Singapore.
Photographer: Jay C. Pugh/U.S. Navy
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS North Carolina sits moored at Changi Naval Base in Singapore.

A U.S. nuclear submarine is making a port call in Singapore as the Navy showcases its ability to operate in shallow coastal waters after questions about the fitness of its Littoral Combat Ship for use in Asia.

The Virginia-class USS North Carolina was designed with littoral combat in mind, particularly for special operations and anti-mine warfare, its commanding officer Richard Rhinehart told reporters yesterday. It is the submarine’s second visit to the region since its commissioning ceremony in 2008.

U.S. Navy officers in the Pacific fleet have raised concerns that the Littoral Combat Ship may lack the speed, range and electronic-warfare capabilities to operate in the vast Asian waters. President Barack Obama, who made a week-long trip to the region to shore up ties with key allies, has said the U.S. would protect East China Sea islands administered by Japan that are claimed by China and reaffirmed defense treaty obligations with the Philippines, embroiled in a dispute with China in the South China Sea.

“This is not the first Virginia-class to deploy to the region,” said Commander Rhinehart. “This does, however, represent a continued effort by the U.S. to send the best technology and capabilities into the Pacific theater.”

The North Carolina, which has been on its current deployment for four months, is the first class of submarine equipped with a periscope system consisting of two photonics masts with infrared and laser range-finding capability that makes it suitable for littoral waters, Rhinehart said. It can launch torpedoes and Tomahawk land attack missiles, has counter-mine capabilities and a nine-man lockout chamber to allow swimmers to exit, he said.

GAO Report

The Littoral Combat Ship, designed to operate in coastal waters, “might be better suited to operations” in the smaller Persian Gulf, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report obtained by Bloomberg News this month. The Navy should consider buying fewer of the ships if its limitations prevent effective use in the Pacific, the report said, following others that have questioned the cost, mission and survivability in combat of the ship.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a Feb. 24 memo that “considerable reservations” led him to bar negotiations for any more than 32 of the vessels, 20 fewer than called for in the Navy’s $34 billion program. The Littoral Combat Ship is made in two versions by Lockheed Martin (LMT) Corp. and Austal Ltd.

Operating in shallow waters is a bigger challenge because there are more objects for sound to bounce off, the mix of salt water and fresh water can cause changes in buoyancy, and there is a greater likelihood of encountering other ships such as fishing vessels, Rhinehart said.

Projecting Power

The U.S. Navy will probably keep buying Littoral Combat Ships because it doesn’t really have an alternative, according to Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who focuses on regional military issues.

“One of the reason why they’re building Littoral Combat Ships is to give them the ability to project power from the water close to land,” he said. “Asia’s important, Southeast Asia in particular is important, and the United States is going to be demonstrating its intention to stay here.”

Obama Visits

Tensions in Asia have been on the rise as China asserts its military muscle and presses claims to territory and resources. In November, China prompted criticism from the U.S., South Korea and Japan after it announced an air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea. In January, it introduced fishing rules in the South China Sea requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

China will make “no compromise, no concessions” in such disputes and is ready to fight and win any battle, General Chang Wanquan said on April 8 in Beijing.

China has said central government defense spending will rise 12.2 percent this year to 808.2 billion yuan ($129.3 billion), at a time the Pentagon is cutting back, proposing a budget for the coming fiscal year of $495.6 billion and to reduce the Army’s personnel by 6 percent by 2015. China’s increased budget threatens to end U.S. military superiority, Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Feb. 11.

Counter, Contain

Obama, speaking on April 24 after a meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said a security treaty between the U.S. and Japan covers “all territory that is administered by Japan.” The commitment to defend the area is longstanding and he was not drawing a new “red line” with China over the issue, Obama said.

Yesterday, the Philippines and the U.S. signed an agreement that will boost the rotational American troop presence in the Southeast Asian nation.

The U.S. is seeking to work cooperatively with China in the region, Obama said at a briefing in Manila with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. “Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of maritime disputes.”

“We have a lot of regional allies,” said the North Carolina’s Commander Rhinehart. “The entire Asia area is very important and we’re here with our partner nations trying to promote security and the rights of all nations large and small.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sharon Chen in Singapore at schen462@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Neil Western

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