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US carrier Carl Vinson enters South China Sea as USS Benfold conducts Spratly Islands FONOP

USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in South China Sea with F-35C
An F/A-18E Super Hornet, prepares to launch off the flight deck aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Sept. 6, 2021. Photo: US Navy

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its Carrier Strike Group (VINCSG) are operating in the South China Sea for the first time during their 2021 deployment.

The announcement of the carrier’s arrival in the contested region coincided with the latest freedom of navigation operation carried out by a US destroyer in the South China Sea.

Destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) challenged China’s excessive maritime claims, asserting navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law. As per the navy, “USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.”

The United States engaged in “normal operations” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea. The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law.

Since 2014, China has built a massive artificial island on the atoll, which now features a fully operational runway together with an airfield. While controlled by China, the reef is also claimed by the Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Introducing F-35C to South China Sea

What makes USS Carl Vinson’s arrival in the South China Sea specific is the fact that it is the first US carrier to operate in the region with the F-35C, the carrier variant of the fifth-generation stealth fighter. Carl Vinson got underway from San Diego on August 2, after completing a 17-month maintenance period and retrofit.

While in the South China Sea, the strike group will be conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units. Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the US Navy’s routine presence in the Indo-Pacific.

“The freedom of all nations to navigate in international waters is important, and especially vital in the South China Sea, where nearly a third of global maritime trade transits each year,” said Rear Adm. Dan Martin, commander, Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group.

“As we’ve transited the Pacific from San Diego to the South China Sea, we have had the privilege and pleasure to work alongside our allies, partners, and joint service teammates in training, exercises, engagements and operations – all with a common goal to ensure peace and stability throughout the region. It is in all of our interest that the international community plays an active role in preserving the rules-based international order.”

The carrier strike group is led by Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1 and includes aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Chafee (DDG 90), and Independence variant littoral combat ship USS Tulsa (LCS 16).

In the month prior to entering the South China Sea, the VINCSG participated in Large Scale Exercise 2021, conducted interoperability flights with UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG-21), and conducted a bilateral exercise with Joint Maritime Self Defense Forces units.