Fly the flag— Hong Kong


Despite the pressures of new technology in its own ranks and a fast-developing Chinese navy sailing into view, the ‘USS George Washington’ continues to rule the Asia-Pacific seas. Monocle climbs aboard the American aircraft carrier.

David A Lausman, South China Sea, USS George Washington

One hundred thousand tonnes of old-fashioned hard power have just dropped anchor in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, creating a steel-grey island in the wider blue. It is a US Navy supercarrier, one of the world’s most potent military machines; its cargo is a mobile air force of over 70 planes and helicopters, and some 5,500 crew. Alone, it outguns most national air forces.

Meet the USS George Washington, unique among the American fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, and the lead ship of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 5. Unlike its sister ships, which…

  • 4 squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets
  • 1 squadron of EA-18G Growler electronic warfare fighters
  • 1 squadron of E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft
  • 1 squadron of SH-60 Seahawk helicopters
  • Sea Sparrow anti-ship/anti-aircraft missiles
  • Rolling Airframe anti-ship/anti-aircraft missiles
  • Phalanx close-in weapon systems
  • 1 Nimitz-class supercarrier
  • 1 carrier air wing, comprising over 70 aircraft
  • 1-2 Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers
  • 2-3 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers
  • 1-2 Los Angeles-class nuclear-attack submarines
  • 1 supply ship

Race for the pacific

In the vast Pacific Ocean, it’s the tiniest places that often end up causing the biggest problems. Numerous countries lay claim to the thousands of islands bestrewing the waters, and friction over who owns what is intensifying.

Though often miles from the countries that claim them, these mainly unpopulated territories enable their owners to claim huge swathes of surrounding ocean complete with valuable fish stocks, as well as any other undersea resources.

They also become symbols of national pride, causing rival claimants to risk conflict even over obscure territories with little material value. As the American military pivots to the Asia-Pacific, it needs to prepare itself for oncoming traffic.

Naval upgrades

Most East Asian nations are significantly enhancing their naval capabilities with a view to safeguarding their prize maritime possessions. In particular, three world-class navies are emerging in Northeast Asia, as China, Japan and South Korea aim to counter each other’s military upgrades.

China covets great-power status and so is emulating the US formula of fielding full-sized aircraft carriers, complete with embarked fighter jets. Its first carrier is currently in testing; three or four Chinese flat-tops should be operational by 2030.

Japan’s pacifist constitution means its navy is spearheaded by a growing fleet of new Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers: mini carriers with up to 11 onboard helicopters. Two of these ships are finished; two larger follow-ons are in the works. Tokyo may be able to fly its new F-35 stealth fighters from the carriers, should the need arise.

The pride of the South Korean navy is a third configuration: its Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships are capable of carrying 10 helicopters, but also hundreds of marines, tanks and other armoured vehicles. One of these ships has already been commissioned, with three more being built. As with Japan’s mini carriers, the Korean assault ships may yet be able to accommodate F-35s, which Seoul is also eyeing.


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