Eric Talmadge /Associated Press – 2008-11-18 22:29:37
Nuclear Carrier on the Prowl, Ready to Growl
Aboard the USS George Washington (November 16, 2008) — Rear Adm. Rick Wren’s office is near the flight deck, above the two nuclear reactors. When the mood strikes, he can take a short walk to the bridge and look out at his new neighborhood, though most of the time that’s just blue water from horizon to horizon.
Wren has a unique command.
No country in the world has anything like the George Washington. It is a floating air base with 67 aircraft ready to fly; it’s a city unto itself, with a population of around 5,000; and it’s an armory carrying about 4 million pounds of bombs.
It is, Wren likes to say, the big dog on the block. And a big part of being the big dog is being seen.
Just two weeks into its maiden voyage in the Pacific, the GW has been to Japan, which is its new home port, South Korea and Guam. It will be at sea probably about half the year, supplied by incoming cargo planes and desalinating its own water.
Down in the hangar bay, the scuttlebutt among the sailors is that a Chinese sub is out there somewhere chasing the carrier and its battle group – a pair of cruisers, plus a sub and a destroyer, which Wren also commands. Wren doesn’t doubt for a minute that he is being watched. That is, after all, part of the game.
Aircraft carriers are an exceptional weapon. They cost about $5 billion apiece. Of the Navy’s 12, only the George Washington is permanently deployed overseas. The carrier is the crown jewel of the US 7th Fleet, a huge armada of 60 to 70 ships, 200 to 300 aircraft, and 20,000 sailors and Marines, most of whom are, like the George Washington, based just south of Tokyo so that they can be closer to whatever missions may arise in their area of responsibility.
That is a vast expanse of the globe.
The fleet is responsible for everywhere from the international dateline to the east coast of Africa, pole to pole — in all, 52 million square miles. Within its watery realm operate ships from five of the world’s largest militaries — China, Russia, India, and North and South Korea.
More than half of the world’s population lives within the 7th Fleet’s ambit, and the region accounts for more than $435 billion in two-way trade with the United States, more than any other region of the world. Nearly all of the US commerce with Asia moves by sea.
“The balance of power is always shifting, and certainly the influence that this portion of the world has compared to Europe is shifting,” said Capt. Karl Thomas, the ship’s executive officer.
Strategists like to single out one vital sea lane and one commodity: the Strait of Malacca and oil. Each year, more than 50,000 ships transit the strait, which is a major chokepoint for oil being transported from the Middle East to the countries in the Pacific Rim. Closure of the strait, between Singapore and Indonesia, would require nearly half of the world’s ships to reroute, according to the US Energy Information Administration, and threaten the flow of more than 15 million barrels of oil per day.
The George Washington‘s mere presence, Thomas says, is possibly the strongest statement the US can make that it is committed to stability in the region – to keeping that oil flowing and that economy growing.
At the front of a ready room for fighter pilots attached to the George Washington‘s Carrier Air Wing 5, a photo of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father, is projected onto a white board above the caption, “We Stood Up.”
Experts from MIT and the Naval Postgraduate School have just finished a get-to-know-the-neighborhood lecture focusing on regional politics, and the pilots are breaking up into little groups to digest what they have learned. If a crisis occurs, these pilots, mostly young men in their 20s, are sure to be in the thick of it.
Capt. Michael White, the air wing commander, says the pilots are trained to fly multiple missions and are prepared for many conditions and theaters.
When deployed in this complicated and increasingly crowded sea, however, politics can’t be completely ignored. “Working in this area of the world, we have to be knowledgeable of the major players, their governments, their economies and their capabilities,” he said.
On that last topic, he said, the George Washington speaks for itself. An aircraft carrier is one thing the Chinese don’t have and aren’t likely to acquire for quite some time, though there has been a lot of talk that they want one.
In the meantime, White has a dog analogy of his own. “The way I see it is that there are a lot of sheep out there, and some wolves,” White said. “We are the sheepdogs.”
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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