Military pundits trumpeted that the US Navy fleet had handed over the South China Sea on a plate with its carriers in port over Covid-19 concerns and dry dock repairs, leaving the vast region to China to flex its muscle.
Apparently, the fun is over — USNI News has learned that USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is underway, back at sea for trials after its annual repair period in Japan and ahead of its spring patrol in the Western Pacific.
“I think it means a lot not only to our sailors of our strike group but also to our nation as a whole and our partners and allies that we get Reagan back to sea and back out on deployment where she belongs,” Task Force 70 Commander Rear Adm. George Wikoff told Stars and Stripes.
The carrier left on Monday from its berth in Yokosuka following an extended quarantine period for the crew of the carrier, as well as several escorts, as part of the Navy’s attempts to keep the Covid-19 virus off of the carrier, service officials confirmed to USNI News earlier this week.
Like the West Coast Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, Task Force 70 ordered the crew into a restriction of movement (ROM) period in Japan ahead of the sea trials.
At the conclusion of the ROM, US 7th Fleet discovered several asymptomatic positive Covid-19 sailors and kept them off the carrier, USNI News reported.
The Navy did not disclose the number of cases, but The New York Times reported there have been at least 16 positive cases from sailors assigned to Reagan.
The quarantine period ahead of deployment is one of the lessons the Navy is absorbing from the outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) that has sidelined the carrier in Guam since March 27, USNI News reported.
The carrier reported more than 1,000 positive cases stemming from what started out as just a handful of infected sailors. Curbing infections on deployed ships has become a top priority for the Navy.
“We have an enormous respect for this virus. It’s insidious, and the reason why it’s insidious is the asymptomatic spread,” Vice Adm. Richard Brown, the commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific, told USNI News.
The hulking carrier was noticeably absent from its berth after leaving its homeport for the first time since November. The ship had been undergoing a regular maintenance period since returning from a six-month deployment, Stars and Stripes reported.
The underway comes as senior leaders have warned of increased Chinese military activity in the South China Sea.
“We continue to see aggressive behavior by the PLA in the South China Sea, from threatening a Philippine Navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon.
In turn, the US has stepped up presence operations in the region, including conducting two freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in April, USNI News reported.
“The Coronavirus Disease 2019 pandemic brought an invisible enemy to our shores and changed the way we operate as a Navy,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told sailors in a written message. “The fight against this virus is a tough one.”
Despite the pandemic, Gilday said, the Navy has “a duty to ensure we are ready to respond.”
“We cannot simply take a knee or keep everyone in port until this enemy is defeated. We are America’s away team,” Gilday said. “The uncertainty caused by [the coronavirus] makes our mission of protecting America at sea more important than ever.”
“That is why the US Navy continues to operate forward every day.”
Following the completion of sea trials — usually about a week — Reagan and its escorts will begin Western Pacific patrols in the South China Sea.