The Navy sent another carrier on a rare trip to the high north. Here’s how sailors kept it going in harsh conditions around Alaska

USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Gulf of Alaska
USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska after exercise Northern Edge 2019, May 25, 2019.

  • US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt sailed to Alaska in May for exercise Northern Edge.
  • The carrier took part in the exercise in 2019, when it became the first carrier to do so in 10 years.
  • The trips reflect the Navy’s increasing focus on the Arctic and its efforts to get used to operating up there again.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hot, long days and dangerous working conditions are typical for Petty Officer 2nd Class Austin Moore, whose job is helping launch and recover aircraft from the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The carrier routinely deploys to the Indo-Pacific region, where the warm weather adds to the heat on the deck and steam from the catapults. Moore’s complex duties only get harder when the carrier does nighttime flight operations.

When the flattop arrived in the Gulf of Alaska in early May for Northern Edge 2021 – a two-week exercise involving 15,000 sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen – Moore looked forward to wrapping up a six-month deployment in unfamiliar surroundings, bundling up against the cold for operations in a region where the sun barely sets at this time of year.

F/A-18 fighter jets take off from USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrer
Two F/A-18 Super Hornets launch from USS Theodore Roosevelt, April 29, 2021.

“Having that opportunity to have a daylight all day, we were always on our game, always a step ahead,” Moore told Insider.

The carrier’s trip reflects the Navy’s increasing presence in and around the Arctic, prompted by increasing Chinese and Russian activity there.

Lawmakers, including Rep. Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, have also sought to increase the US military’s focus on the region.

Last month, Luria and other legislators introduced a bill that would require the Pentagon to complete an Arctic security assessment and develop a five-year plan to give the services the resources necessary for specific strategic needs in the region.

“The Arctic is where the future of military conflict and free trade will be decided,” Luria said in a statement.

Building up ‘core knowledge’

Crew on flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck
Sailors watch flight operations aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

Building sailors’ muscle memory for operations in those increasingly accessible waters has important implications for the fleet.

“We haven’t had sailors operating since in these areas since the late ’80s, since the end of the Cold War, so a lot of that core knowledge is no longer there, except for those of us who have done it,” said Lt. Alex Morgan, the Theodore Roosevelt’s assistant navigator.

“So it’s really important that we capture these experiences” and share them across the service, added Morgan, who plans the carrier’s movements. “One of the nice things is that nobody stays in one place very long, so we’ll be in ships and squadrons across the fleet within just a couple of years.”

Sailors load missile on fighter jet on USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
Sailors move ordnance across the flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

The last 16 months have been tumultuous for the crew of Theodore Roosevelt.

A COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 lead to the death of one chief petty officer and sidelined the carrier for weeks following the ouster of its popular commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley resigned after his remarks to the crew during a visit drew widespread backlash.

The carrier returned to San Diego in summer 2020, but that homecoming was brief. Now, after a “double pump” deployment, the carrier and about 3,000 crew members are switching homeports to Bremerton, Washington.

The flattop will undergo maintenance at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, including an upgrade to enable the flight deck to handle the F-35C.

The operations off Alaska capped a chaotic period for the crew and offered them a new set of challenges: cold weather, low visibility, stiff winds, long supply lines, and marine wildlife.

“We started all that planning when we’re operating off the coast of Guam, which was obviously a vastly different experience – warm temperatures, high humidity,” Morgan said. “Within the space of the week, we went from sweating at every step to bundled up and seeing our breath on the bridge. So it was definitely a mentality shift.”

E-2C Hawkeye launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
An E-2C Hawkeye launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt during Northern Edge 2021, May 3, 2021.

Theodore Roosevelt also participated in Northern Edge in 2019, the first time a carrier had done so in 10 years. Morgan and others said they leaned on the playbook from that experience.

“In 2019 the carrier was more limited,” said Morgan, who participated in the exercise for the first time this year. “We had to be closer to shore. We had more flexibility this time because our pilots were certified to operate farther from land.”

While the Navy trains to operate around marine wildlife, crew members said they were surprised by how often they spotted whales and dolphins.

“We had to be very cognizant of where we were operating and keep a good lookout,” Morgan said.

Water temperatures ranged from the high 30s to low 40s Fahrenheit, markedly different from the 80-degree water temperatures around Guam, said Capt. Eric Anduze, Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer. Keeping sailors warm became a priority, including shortening rotations to help “maintain awareness.”

“When you live in a floating metal box, it really permeates through the skin of the ship and makes everything extremely cold,” Anduze said.

Sailors signal F/A-18E fighter jet on USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier
Sailors signal an F/A-18E Super Hornet before it launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt during exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 4, 2021.

A person in water that cold can only survive about 20 minutes, said Ensign Jorge Miguel, a bridge officer of the deck. That leaves an extremely small window to maneuver the carrier and the resources necessary for search and rescue if someone goes overboard.

“You don’t want to wait 20 minutes,” Miguel said. “By then it’s too late.”

A lingering weather system created days of low visibility, reducing the ability to launch aircraft, Anduze said.

Operations slowed but didn’t stop, and that low visibility made extra vigilance necessary, Miguel said.

“If you’re not able to see out the window and see any contacts out there, at that point you’re relying on radars to see what you have in front of you and make the best decision with what you have available to you,” Miguel said.

Poor weather also caused problems for pilots one day during the exercise, forcing them to divert to an Air Force base inland, Morgan said. With the pandemic ongoing, the crew did not want to strand pilots overnight.

USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier near Alaska
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska during Exercise Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021.

“One of the unique things about being an aircraft carrier is you can always move the airport, but it was so thick that day, we had to delay recovery by several hours,” Morgan said.

“That was a lot of work between our air department [and] our meteorologists on board. We were working with the strike group and just trying to figure out where we can position the ship so that we can recover those aircraft before sunset,” Morgan added.

While longer days meant more light on the flight deck, Moore, who was aboard for the 2019 exercise, said they also made it more difficult to rest. Sleep deprivation is a major readiness problem for the Navy.

For Miguel, the experience presented a challenge partly because it was brand new, but he said novelty shouldn’t be an obstacle.

“Whether we’re in Alaska or, say, Fifth Fleet or Seventh Fleet, it doesn’t really matter. We should be able to execute and use to training that we’ve gone through to execute accordingly,” he said.

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With close military encounters on opposite sides of the world, Russia is sending a message to the West

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26, 2021.
British destroyer HMS Defender in the Black Sea port of Batumi, June 26, 2021.

  • Russia’s military had close encounters with its US and European rivals in the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean in June.
  • The incidents and exercises were messages about Russia’s military capabilities, experts told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Close encounters between Russia’s military and US and European forces in June were signals from Moscow to its rivals about its capabilities and how it was willing to use them, experts said this month.

On June 23, Russian combat aircraft flew over the British destroyer HMS Defender as it conducted an “innocent passage” near Crimea.

Russia claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the warship, which the UK denied, though the British defense minister said Russian jets performed maneuvers that were “neither safe nor professional.”

In the same area a day later, Russian jets repeatedly flew close to Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten while conducting mock attacks, creating what the Dutch Defense Ministry called “a dangerous situation.”

Eversten’s commander said it was in international waters and that the Russian actions were “irresponsible and unsafe.”

Those incidents have “a larger message,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

A Russian fighter jet flying past the HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea
A Russian fighter jet flying past the Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea, June 24, 2021.

“Moscow is increasingly willing and able to enforce what it sees as territorial and operational red lines, and Crimea and the Black Sea are a major focus of attention,” Rojansky told Insider.

Tensions remain high after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and Moscow has sought to “set the precedent” that it controls its territorial claims there, Rojansky said, citing the 2018 Kerch Strait incident.

“All this traces back to Putin’s words in March 2014, when he justified the Russian seizure of Crimea as being about keeping NATO out,” Rojansky added.

Russia’s military drilled around Crimea throughout the end of June and early July, focusing on attacking the ships of “a notional enemy.” The US- and Ukrainian-led exercise Sea Breeze also kicked off in late June and was the largest iteration in its 21-year history, with 32 countries participating.

Moscow described Sea Breeze as “openly anti-Russian,” but US and NATO officials stressed that it was defensive in nature and done in accordance with international law.

“It’s one of the most robust Sea Breeze exercises we’ve conducted to date, and we’re proud of that,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said July 6.

F-35 fighter jet over HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier
Aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth during an exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, June 2021.

The Black Sea incidents also overlapped with Russian and British-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing with US F-35B fighter jets aboard, conducted exercises and combat operations against ISIS during the final days of June.

US and British jets found themselves in a “cat-and-mouse” game with Russia, which angled to keep an eye on them as Russian warships and aircraft conducted reconnaissance and air-defense drills.

Their proximity was not a coincidence, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA.

Russia has deployed more forces to its improved military facilities in Syria, while the UK is putting HMS Queen Elizabeth, its newest carrier, through real-world testing during its maiden deployment.

“A force-on-force interaction that’s not planned is probably one the best ways to generate these kind of lessons and experience for the Royal Navy,” Kofman said on a recent podcast, adding that Russia used “the British deployment as an opportunity to essentially … train strike missions against NATO ships.”

‘Ready and present’

The Russian navy Varyag missile cruiser ensuring air defence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag.

Mid-June also saw a major Russian exercise in the central Pacific Ocean, with warships and aircraft conducting what Russian officials called their largest exercise there since the Cold War.

Much of their activity was several hundred miles from Hawaii, but US officials said some Russian ships came within 30 nautical miles of the islands.

Russian long-range-bomber operations during the exercise twice prompted US F-22 fighters to scramble for potential intercepts, though US officials said Russian aircraft never came close to Hawaii. (US and Russian aircraft regularly intercept each other over the Pacific.)

The exercise was “unprecedented” in its size and its distance from Russia, according to Carl Shuster, a retired US Navy captain who was director of operations at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in the 1990s.

“The Soviet Navy never conducted exercises this close to the Hawaiian Islands,” Shuster told Insider.

“The Russian political statement was ‘we’ve returned as a Pacific maritime power and can reach your territory just as you are reaching ours in the Black Sea,'” Shuster added. “The target audience of course was the Russian people and the American leadership.”

US Navy cruiser USS Chosin and Russian Navy destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov
Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, foreground, with US guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin in the Yellow Sea, March 31, 2006.

The Pacific exercise – which took place around the Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland – was also a demonstration of military capability, featuring what Moscow called “the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group.”

The ships involved included guided-missile cruiser Varyag, Russia’s Pacific Fleet flagship, and destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which carries Kalibr missiles, a weapon that worries US commanders and “presented the potential military threat that gave the message credibility,” Shuster said.

US military forces “remain ready and present in the Indo-Pacific,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, told Insider, calling it the US’s “priority theater.”

The Russian warships that conducted the Pacific exercise returned to port earlier this month, but encounters between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea and the Pacific have continued. Russian officials continue to call the HMS Defender incident a “provocation” and warn about future run-ins.

“Russia will continue to foil such actions using the harshest methods, regardless of the nationality of the violator,” Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said this week.

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The US captured one of its most important military outposts from an enemy who didn’t even know it was at war

US troops plant US flag on Guam during WWII
US officers plant the American flag on Guam eight minutes after Marines and soldiers landed on the island, July 20, 1944.

  • In June 1898, the US Navy sailed to Guam to capture the island from the Spanish.
  • The Spanish, who didn’t know they were fighting the US, surrendered the island without a fight.
  • Guam is still a US territory, and it now hosts some of the US’s most important military bases.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In eight months of fighting in 1898, the US secured its status as a global power by defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War.

Fought on two continents, the war had a number of important moments for the US military. It led to the independence of Cuba (with the US as the dominant power there) and to US control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

While there were battles in both Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Guam was taken without a fight. Indeed, the Spanish on the island had no idea they were even at war.

An important stop

Map of Guam in the Pacific
Guam was an important stopover point between the Americas and the Philippines.

In the 1898, the big prize for Spain and the US in the Pacific was the Philippines. Guam was an important stop between the Americas and the Philippines, but neither Spain nor the US paid much attention to it.

The Americans had already positioned Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron off China in anticipation of striking the Spanish fleet at Manila. But after a May 9 meeting of the US Navy War Board, which was formed to develop a strategy for the war, it was decided that Guam should also be taken to support operations in the Philippines.

To seize it, Secretary of the Navy John Long issued sealed orders to Capt. Henry Glass of the USS Charleston, a protected cruiser en route from California to Manila.

In Honolulu, Charleston was joined by three troop transports. As instructed, Glass only read his orders after leaving Hawaii on June 4.

“You are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam,” the orders read. “You will use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the Governor and other officials, and any armed force that may be there.”

Glass was also ordered to destroy any Spanish fortifications or naval vessels he encountered.

Complete surprise

Navy cruiser Charleston in harbor at Agana Guam
USS Charleston at the entrance to the harbor of Agana, Guam, June 20-21, 1898.

Though the orders said the operation “should not occupy more than one or two days,” Guam’s defenses were not entirely known, so while en route Charleston’s crew spent days firing on practice targets in the ocean.

Charleston arrived off Guam on the morning of June 20. Encountering only an abandoned fort and no Spanish ships in Agana, the capital city, Glass ordered his ship to sail to Apra Harbor.

To the crew’s disappointment, the only vessel there was a Japanese trading ship. Charleston fired several shots at Fort Santa Cruz to see if it was occupied, but it was also abandoned.

Spanish officials soon sailed out to meet Charleston in two small boats, one of which had a US flag on its topsail.

Upon boarding the Charleston, the Spaniards apologized. They had interpreted Charleston’s gunfire as a salute, and they told the Americans they could not respond in kind because of a lack of gunpowder.

The Capt. Henry Glass monument on Guam
The Capt. Henry Glass monument on Guam.

It turned out the island hadn’t communicated with Manila since April 14 – 11 days before the US declared war on Spain – and no Spanish Navy vessel had visited Guam in 18 months.

Glass told the Spaniards that their countries were at war and that he was taking over the island. He demanded Guam’s governor, Don Juan Marina, surrender the island in person aboard Charleston.

The delegation returned, and Marina requested to speak to Glass on the island instead, as he was not legally allowed to board a foreign warship.

The next day, Glass sent an envoy to demand the Spanish surrender and gave them a half-hour to comply. Twenty-nine minutes later, Marina surrendered.

The island’s garrison, which had fewer than 60 men, was disarmed and taken as prisoners aboard one of the transport ships, as were Marina and other Spanish officials.

The Americans then set sail for Manila, where they assisted Dewey for the rest of the war.

An important base

B-29 over runway at Harmon Field Guam during WWII
A B-29 bomber over the runway at Harmon Field, Guam, April 13, 1945.

After the surrender, Glass personally examined Fort Santa Cruz, where he raised the American flag.

The fort itself “was entirely useless as a defensive work, with no guns and in a partly ruinous condition,” Glass wrote in a report to Long.

Glass described the other forts on the island as having “no value,” and that the only guns that could be found were obsolete cast-iron guns used for saluting “but now condemned as unsafe even for that purpose.”

While the Spanish had neglected Guam, the US turned it into an important base.

The Japanese captured it on December 10, 1941, but the US retook it in a bloody 21-day battle in summer 1944, and used it as a base for B-29 bombing missions for the rest of the war.

Air Force Cope North Guam
An eight-plane formation over Guam during exercise Cope North 21, February 9, 2021.

Guam is now home to roughly 170,000 people, and its importance for the US military has only increased.

It is now the US’s “most critical operating location west of the international dateline,” Adm. Philip Davidson said before retiring as head of US Indo-Pacific Command earlier this year.

The major bases on Guam are Andersen Air Force Base, which often hosts US long-range bombers, and Naval Base Guam, which is home to a submarine squadron and is frequently visited by other warships.

It also hosts some 7,000 US military personnel, with more arriving as the Marine Corps relocates 5,000 Marines from Okinawa as part of a realignment plan. Their new home, Camp Blaz, is the Corps’ first new base in 68 years.

US Navy 7th Fleet USS Blue Ridge Guam
US, Australian, Japanese, and South Korean naval ships in Apra Harbor at US Naval Base Guam, May 22, 2019.

Guam is an unincorporated US territory, meaning people born there are US citizens but have limited political rights while they live there.

The US presence there has often irritated the local population, as when thousands of US sailors were quarantined there after a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in spring 2020.

The US military presence also makes Guam a target.

North Korea has threatened it specifically in the past, and the island is believed to be a focal point of Chinese plans to neutralize US bases in the region in case of conflict.

China’s DF-26, its first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam, has been dubbed the “Guam Killer.”

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The game of chicken the US and China are playing in the Pacific looks worryingly familiar

Biden and Xi Jinping
Joe Biden, then US vice president, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in California in 2012.

  • The US and Chinese militaries have been operating in close proximity in the waters and airspace of the Pacific Ocean.
  • US and Chinese may not be seeking a war, but the interactions between their forces, and the close calls they sometimes have, could lead to one.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don’t seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives.

Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons – no sure bet – would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war.

Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China’s coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don’t always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off.

None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Navy destroyer Mustin China aircraft carrier
US Navy officers aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin monitor Chinese ships in the Philippine Sea, April 4, 2021.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era – China, the United States, and Russia – are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era.

All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and “show-of-force” operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk.

As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia’s border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China’s eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let’s instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing.

Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and US/allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific – far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands).

The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan’s defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China’s extended boundary claims are illegitimate.

There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas – places where US and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing limits (and defying them)

blinken anchorage
US and Chinese officials had a tense first meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

The leaders of the US and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas.

For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or US counterattacks.

For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China’s claims and ensuring that its leadership can’t realize them through military means.

Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks.

These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to US technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country’s exports to the US His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country’s leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing’s repeated “bullying” of other claimants to islands in that sea.

Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law” – language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being “bullied” by China.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi shows the way to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting in Beijing.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on US diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then.

This was understood to be part of Washington’s commitment to a “One China” policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation).

Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence – an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.

According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were “a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Speaking of that island’s increasing diplomatic contact with the US, he added, “Those who play with fire will get burned.”

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

In the first high-level encounter between US and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 and 19, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing “deep concerns” over China’s behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

‘Gunboat diplomacy’ today

Navy destroyer John McCain South China Sea
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain in the South China Sea, April 7, 2021.

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren’t met.

The US used just such “gunboat diplomacy,” as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the US engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas – Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels.

In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the US, Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China.

This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the US Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America’s continuing ability to dominate the region – as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region.

China Liaoning aircraft carrier
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailing between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands toward the Pacific Ocean, April 3, 2021.

For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China.

“Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific,” was the way Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden’s inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24, and the USS John Finn on March 10.

On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the US military would “continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Typically, when the US Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA – responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels.

This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA.

In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort – to put the matter as politely as possible – the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

uss decatur
A confrontation between the USS Decatur, left, and PRC Warship 170, right, in the South China Sea on September 30, 2018.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences.

“You are on [a] dangerous course,” the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. “If you don’t change course, [you] will suffer consequences.”

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: The captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018?

Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the US and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance – a war this planet simply can’t afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn’t be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn’t it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences?

Strident language and provocative military maneuvers – even if only intended as political messaging – could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is “All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.” He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane US-China Policy.

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Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid hunters’ harpoons 200 years ago, according to new study

Sperm Whales
A pod of sperm whales swimming underwater.

  • Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid harpoons 200 years ago, according to a new study.
  • It was based on newly digitized logbooks from hunters in the North Pacific in the 19th century.
  • The paper concluded that the decline in harpoon strike rates was due to whales communicating with each other.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Sperm whales taught each other how to avoid harpoons after hunting for them began 200 years ago, according to a new study.

Published by the Royal Society on Wednesday, the research was based on newly digitized logbooks from American whalers, which recorded details of their expeditions in the North Pacific during the 19th century, such as the number of whales spotted or harpooned.

Although they were in high demand for their whalebone, ivory, and blubber and almost 80,000 ‘voyage days’ recorded, there were only 2,405 successful whale sightings, a mere 3% success rate.

The study’s authors, cetacean researchers Professor Hal Whitehead and Dr. Luke Rendell, as well as data scientist Dr. Tim D Smith, also found that the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58% in less than two and half years after they first began hunting in the region.

In Halifax, Canada, Professor Whitehead of Dalhousie University told The Owen Sun Sound Times: “That was very remarkable. I thought there might be a drop, but not that much and not that quickly.

“Usually, you expect it to increase as they figure out stuff and become more successful. That’s typically how our exploitation of wildlife goes. We become more efficient as we learn how to do it.”

The study concluded that sperm whales had learned how they were being killed, shared this information with their pod and changed their behavior accordingly, displaying ‘cultural evolution.’

The species live with their children in female-only pods or groups, allowing them to form close links and share tips to evade hunters.

The hunters recognized the sperm whales had developed tactics to evade them. Instead of forming defensive squares used to fight off their natural predators, the killer whale, the sperm whales, understood that swimming against the wind would allow them to outrun the wind-powered hunters’ ships.

The advent of steam power and grenade harpoons in the later years of the 19th century meant even the canny sperm whale was doomed to mass slaughter, however.

‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal on the planet and the researchers highlighted that if they were able to adapt 200 years ago, they could probably also face the ocean’s challenges today.

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