An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Samantha Jetzer)

In a move considered provocative by China, the US has sent three aircraft carriers to patrol the South China Sea, a move surely intended as a warning as bilateral tensions rise, The Global Times reported.

The three US aircraft carriers, namely the USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, together with other US naval warships and aircraft, are patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters, the Associated Press reported.

It has been nearly three years since so many US aircraft carriers have been simultaneously deployed in the region, the report said, noting this move comes as tensions between China and the US are rising over topics like Covid-19, Hong Kong’s national security law and the South China Sea.

By massing these aircraft carriers, the US is attempting to demonstrate to the whole region and even the world that it remains the most powerful naval force, as they could enter the South China Sea and threaten Chinese troops on the Xisha and Nansha islands as well as vessels passing through nearby waters, Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times.

Chinese military experts said China could counter it by holding military drills and showing its ability and determination to safeguard its territorial integrity.

All three aircraft carriers were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the US with no aircraft carriers in the western Pacific region for more than two months, The Global Times reported.

Naval and aerial forces of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have “expelled” many US warships that entered China’s territorial waters off the Xisha and Nansha islands in the South China Sea this year, according to PLA statements.

In addition to standard naval warships, aircraft and missiles, China claims it possesses a wide range of weapons designed to sink aircraft carriers, such as the medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile DF-21D that can cover the First Island Chain, and the intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missile DF-26 that can reportedly reach Guam.

These missiles can attack medium-sized to large surface vessels from above at very high speeds, making them difficult to intercept, The Global Times reported.

In fact, experts say a hypersonic missile travels at such great speed, a well-targeted hit, even without a warhead, would pass right through a ship, likely putting it out of action.

However military experts say that locating, targeting, directing and hitting such a vessel is not as easy as it sounds, with a complicated “kill chain” that could easily be disrupted by myriad US defenses.