US Navy plans to raise new fleet in Indo Pacific, says top US official

Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (left) transiting the Strait of Hormuz, on Sept 18, 2020.
Aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (left) transiting the Strait of Hormuz, on Sept 18, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The Secretary of the United States Navy has called for the Navy to establish a new fleet at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

“We can’t just rely on the Seventh Fleet in Japan,” Mr Kenneth Braithwaite said on Tuesday (Nov 17). He was speaking at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, which was held virtually this year.

A spokesman for Mr Braithwaite, Captain, J. Dorsey, on Thursday (Nov 19) e-mailed The Straits Times saying:  “No decisions have been made regarding the establishment or location of an additional numbered fleet in the Indo Pacific. The Navy continues to review our organisational structure and force posture, in coordination with combatant commanders and our allies and partners, to ensure we can most effectively meet the maritime challenges we face around the world.”

Mr Braithwaite's remarks were reported in USNI News, the journal of the US Naval Institute.

“We want to stand up a new numbered fleet,” he said. “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.”

In 2018, the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command or Indo-Pacom (USINDOPACOM). Currently, the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, operating out of Japan, covers a vast oceanic expanse, all the way to the India-Pakistan border. An additional new fleet in the area would have obvious merits, analysts say.

The plan also comes as the US Navy embarks on an aggressive expansion of its ship and submarine strength over a 30-year horizon.

“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 get in any kind of a dust-up,” Mr Braithwaite said.

“More importantly, it can provide a much more formidable deterrence,” he added.

“So we’re going to create the First Fleet,” he said. “And we’re going to put it, if not Singapore right out of the chocks, we’re going 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.”

Nations around the Pacific and around the globe need to assist in pushing back Beijing militarily and economically for deterrence to work, he stressed.

In a brief statement, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said that - as per its 2012 agreement with the US - it had agreed to the US’ request to deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore on a rotational basis.

“This remains the standing arrangement with no further requests from or discussions with the US Department of Defense (DOD) on additional deployment of US ships in Singapore” it said. 

Mr Braithwaite, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in March and took office in May, said he would be travelling to India in the coming weeks to discuss security challenges.

His remarks came as on Nov 17, the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group joined phase two of annual Malabar naval exercises in the northern Arabian Sea alongside the navies of Australia, India and Japan – who together comprise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad for short.

After clashes with China on its Himalayan border, India has drawn closer to the US and has successfully concluded the fourth foundational military agreement. The latest Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement was signed last month.

“There was a time when India was concerned about the US presence in the Indian Ocean,” noted retired naval Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director of the Society for Policy Studies, an independent think-tank.

“However given the current level of military cooperation and the strategic partnership between the US and India, there would not be a similar apprehension.”

The US move sends to its allies the message that “we are staying, and not just via words but actions” said Dr Aparna Pande, Research Fellow and Director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Mr Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at RAND, who is focused on national security policy and the Indo-Pacific, tweeted that the US Navy plans to “double-down on the ‘Indo’ part of the Indo-Pacific”.

“If the US Navy goes ahead… it will reaffirm that Washington continues to view Asia strategy through an ‘Indo-Pacific’ lens, that is, not just focusing on the Western Pacific,” Mr Grossman told The Straits Times.

“The US likely seeks to leverage the Indian Ocean Region as part of a strategy to compete with and counter China, and, importantly, India is increasingly favourable towards such an approach.”

A spokesman for Mr Braithwaite, Captain, J. Dorsey, on Thursday emailed The Straits Times saying “No decisions have been made regarding the establishment or location of an additional numbered fleet in the Indo Pacific. The Navy continues to review our organizational structure and force posture, in coordination with combatant commanders and our allies and partners, to ensure we can most effectively meet the maritime challenges we face around the world.”

Additional reporting by Nirmala Ganapathy