U.S. carrier George Washington leaves Yokosuka after seven years

Kyodo, AP

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington left the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture on Monday, ending a seven-year deployment.

The carrier, which was sent to Yokosuka Naval Base as the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be stationed overseas, is expected to undergo a fuel exchange and large-scale overhaul in Virginia after taking part in patrols and drills in the western Pacific.

Its replacement, the USS Ronald Reagan, a carrier of the same class, is slated to be deployed at Yokosuka as early as this autumn.

Sent off by some 200 people, including U.S. military personnel and their family members, sailors aboard the George Washington formed the Japanese word sayonara, or goodbye, on the deck.

Rear Adm. John Alexander told reporters that China’s aircraft carrier ambitions demonstrate the continuing importance of the U.S. basing the mammoth ships in the western Pacific.

“Everybody asks whether the aircraft carriers are obsolete,” he said at a dockside news conference before the carrier departed. “I would say when other countries are building an aircraft carrier, they’re doing it for a reason, and the fact is you can actually have a bigger influence in the region.”

The George Washington will conduct exercises in the region on its way home, Alexander said, but he did not specify whether any of them will be held in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Deployed at Yokosuka in September 2008, the George Washington played a key role in the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which covers the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Ronald Reagan, which entered service in 2003, was engaged in the Operation Tomodachi relief mission immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region in March 2011.