Two US warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait on Monday. The cruiser USS Antietam, and destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed through the strait to demonstrate the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a US military spokesman. This was the second Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise conducted by US naval forces in the Taiwan Strait over the past three months. Chinese warships shadowed Antietam and Wilbur during the voyage, maintaining a safe distance, and not making any moves that could be considered provocative.
The US move is likely to aggravate the already high tensions between the United States and China. Along with the ongoing trade war, US Freedom of Navigation exercises in the Western Pacific have irritated Beijing. By extending the exercises to include the Taiwan Strait, the Trump administration is also sending a message that its support of Taiwan remains unchanged. This could be difficult for Beijing to stomach. The People’s Republic of China still regards Taiwan as a ‘lost province’ of sorts to eventually be reunified with the mainland. China has vowed to reclaim Taiwan at some point, and through the use of force if necessary.
Monday’s collision between the USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker in Malacca Straits has to serve as a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for the US Navy. Ten sailors are either dead or missing, a destroyer is damaged and will have to go into dry dock for extended repairs, and the service’s senior leadership needs to determine whether the seamanship skills of its sailors and officers are lacking. The Chief of Naval Operations has ordered an Operational Pause fleet wide as the investigation into what happened aboard McCain gets underway. Shortly after the incident rumors of cyber intrusion or sabotage possibly being the cause of the incident surfaced online. For the moment it does not appear that any sort of hacking played a role. Until the investigation is completed it will not be known for certain, however, for the moment this appears to be an accident and nothing more nefarious.
This marks the fourth major incident with a US warship in the Pacific this year. The destroyer Fitzgerald, McCain’s sister ship, collided with the merchant vessel ACX Crystal two months ago. Seven sailors were killed in the collision, and several other men were injured. Earlier in the year, the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground and spilled 1,100 gallons of hydraulic fluid in Tokyo Bay. In May, the cruiser USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat with little damage inflicted to either ship. This incident was clearly the fault of the civilian boat and not the Lake Champlain’s.
The McCain collision comes at the worst possible time for the US Navy, and the 7th Fleet. The forward deployed fleet is now down two destroyers, and a cruiser at a time when its tensions are rising around its AOR and the tempo of operations is significantly higher than normal. 7th Fleet’s woes are symptoms of a larger problem that has been allowed to erode the US military’s capabilities in recent years. President Trump’s claims during the 2016 campaign that the US military’s needs were greatly neglected in the Obama years appear to have been accurate. Sequestration, high ops tempos, and an emphasis on non-operational priorities combined to place the services in a difficult position.
With uncertainty, and tensions dominating the world at the moment, the US military needs get its act together quickly. The enhanced defense budget will begin pumping money through the pipeline to the services, however, this is a problem that cannot be solved with money alone.