The US Navy is planning to launch a dedicated fleet for its operations in the strategically important Indian Ocean to strengthen its ties with its allies in the region and to deter China’s expansionist moves in the region.
“We want to stand up a new numbered fleet,” said US Navy Secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, speaking at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium held virtually this time amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “And we want to put that numbered fleet in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and we’re really going to have an Indo-PACOM footprint.”
He said that he planned to bring back the US First Fleet that initially became operational in 1947 and oversaw the American naval operations in the western Pacific Ocean. However, in 1973 it was disestablished and its operations were handed over to the Third Fleet.
The operations of the Third Fleet were later restricted to the eastern Pacific and the Seventh Fleet took over operations in the western Pacific. The Seventh Fleet is currently deployed in Japan and is overseeing operations in the Indian Ocean.
“We can’t just rely on the 7th Fleet in Japan. We have to look to our other allies and partners like Singapore, like India, and actually put a numbered fleet where it would be extremely relevant if, god forbid, we were to ever to get in any kind of a dust-up,” said Braithwaite and reported by USNI News, the publication run by the United States Naval Institute.
He added that the fleet would provide a “formidable deterrence” and the fleet will first be based in Singapore “right out of chocks”. “We have to look to make it more expeditionary-oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us.”
The US has a three-decade-old pact with Singapore that gives it access to the Changi naval base where the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are deployed under the Seventh Fleet.
Braithwaite said that he’ll discuss the security challenges and how the US Navy can help India on his visit in the coming weeks, reported USNI News. He added that the US alone cannot stand against China and the Indo-Pacific nations and other nations around the world need to stand up to China, militarily and economically.
“The Chinese have shown their aggressiveness around the globe,” Braithwaite said at the beginning of his speech. “Having just come from the High North (where he previously served as US Ambassador to Norway), Chinese presence in the Arctic is unprecedented. Most recently I was on a trip to the Far East: every single one of our allies and partners is concerned about how aggressive the Chinese have been. I would argue with anybody that not since the War of 1812 has the United States and our sovereignty been under the kind of pressures that we see today.”
The plan for the First Fleet was finalized with the former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was recently fired through a tweet by President Donald Trump and Christopher C. Miller was appointed as the new Acting Secretary of Defense. US Navy Secretary said he hadn’t talked to Miller yet but he had “crossed all the other T’s and dotted all the other I’s,” reported USNI News.
Meanwhile, Navy spokesman Capt. J.D. Dorsey told USNI News that “no decisions have been made on timing or location for the establishment of an additional numbered fleet in the Indo Pacific.”
The announcement came at a time when the four “Quad” nations – India, the US, Japan and Australia are conducting the second phase of the Malabar Naval Exercise in the Indian Ocean.
The exercise is conducted in the backdrop of rising tensions with China. All the four Quad countries are facing hostilities from China and have hastened the cooperation after officials from the member countries met in Tokyo on October 6.
After Washington and New Delhi inked several defense pacts including BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) to access American capabilities including geospatial intelligence for targeting enemy positions and better surveillance of its adversaries, this new Fleet will further strengthen the position of India and the US, along with their allies, against China.