The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan has departed the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture for a scheduled annual patrol of the Asia-Pacific region amid growing concerns over North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile program and simmering territorial disputes in the contested South China Sea.
The Reagan, the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, departed its homeport in Yokosuka on Tuesday after technical problems reportedly delayed its departure a day earlier. The departure comes just two days after North Korea, in its latest provocation, lobbed one of its most advanced ballistic missiles to date into the Sea of Japan.
Although port visits and other operations have not been announced, the Reagan is also expected to conduct what the navy says are “routine patrols” of the disputed South China Sea — a move that is likely to unnerve Beijing.
The U.S. says China has continued to bolster its military capabilities there as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the strategic waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
With tensions on the Korean Peninsula soaring amid nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea, the Reagan could also see action in the Sea of Japan.
Currently, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is operating in those waters, conducting ongoing exercises with the South Korean Navy, according to media reports. The Vinson and its accompanying vessels arrived in the area last month as part of what U.S. President Donald Trump termed an “armada” sent amid the North’s unabated nuclear and ballistic missile developments.
Speculation has grown that the Reagan will replace the Vinson in the Sea of Japan.
Local media reports citing the Japanese government have also said the Reagan may conduct joint training with the Self-Defense Forces in the Sea of Japan or the East China Sea in a bid to heap more pressure on North Korea.
Late last month, the fighter jets and ships from the Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces conducted joint drills with the Vinson in waters near Japan.
The 330-meter-long Reagan, which carries more than 5,000 service members and about 60 aircraft, replaced the USS George Washington in 2015 as the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 5 in Yokosuka.
It “provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” the navy said in a statement.
Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of the navy’s Task Force 70, said the strike group would work with allies and partners in the region while “continuing our persistent operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
In a massive show of strength last summer that analysts said was meant to reassure Asian allies nervous over China’s moves in the East and South China seas, the U.S. Navy deployed two aircraft carriers — the Reagan and the USS John Stennis — for exercises in the Western Pacific.