USS CARL VINSON – “STRENGTH FROM THE SEA”
By Gordon Arthur
On 22 May, the San Diego-based USS Carl Vinson sailed into Hong Kong waters for a four-day port call. The arrival of this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the US Navy created something of a media frenzy in the territory thanks to the vessel’s recent exploits in the northern Arabian Sea during Operation Neptune’s Spear. The last religious rites and at-sea burial of Osama bin Laden were administered from this Nimitz-class supercarrier within 24 hours of the successful mission to capture or kill the USA’s most wanted fugitive on 2 May.
The raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan involved two mysterious low-observable UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). Had it not been for the fact that one helicopter crash-landed and had to be destroyed, the world at large would not have been aware of the existence of these stealth craft operated by the “Night Stalkers”. The assault team came from the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG), formerly known as SEAL Team 6. This elite unit (also referred to as DEVGRU) is highly secretive, though it is known to be based in Virginia. After the raid, bin Laden’s body was flown by V-22 Osprey to USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) from a staging point in Afghanistan for its watery consignment.
Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, the Commander of Strike Group One (CSG-1), adamantly refused to field any questions in Hong Kong relating to the burial of the Al-Qaeda leader’s corpse. Naval officers and personnel were clearly instructed not to address the topic in any capacity, although some sailors revealed they had not known about their carrier’s role in the mission until they viewed it on the television news.
Hong Kong authorities and US Navy’s CSG-1 were bracing themselves for any terrorist reprisals connected to the death of bin Laden. In a show of force the carrier was accompanied by an escort screen comprising the destroyer USS Gridley (DDG-101) and the guided-missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) and USS Shiloh (CG-67). The four ships anchored in open water to the west of Kowloon to allow full utilisation of their radar systems to identify the approach of any suspicious vessels. This was to avoid any recurrence of the deadly attack on USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Armed sailors were much in evidence, as were a picket of Hong Kong Police and other security vessels. It is believed a US Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) unit was also embarked on the carrier. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government rated the threat level as only “moderate”.
The arrival of the carrier strike group and its 7,000 sailors and airmen came hot on the heels of a separate port visit by USS Hampton (SSN-767), a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine and its tender USS Frank Cable (AS-40). The fact that the Foreign Ministry in Beijing approved these American naval visits is further evidence of gradually thawing military ties after exchanges between the two powers were suspended after the USA approved an arms package to Taiwan. RDML Perez enthused, “The fact that we are coming into this port signals the warm relationship we have between our military forces and our nations.”
At the same time as these port calls were taking place, the PLA Chief of General Staff, General Chen Bingde, was in Washington DC on an official weeklong visit to meet his Pentagon counterparts. This bilateral exchange is the first visit of the PLA’s top leader to Washington since 2004. Chen stated: “The world does not need to worry about, let alone fear, China’s growth. I can tell you China does not have the capability to challenge the United States.” He added: “Although China’s defence and military developments have come a long way in recent years, a gaping gap between you and us remains.” He asserted there was a “20-year gap” between China and the USA in terms of military capability. Despite such conciliatory comments, he also warned that US arms sales to Taiwan will harm military-to-military relations with China.
Hong Kong was USS Carl Vinson’s second port call after having visited Manila from 15-18 May. With its role in the elimination of bin Laden, the carrier has lived up to its motto of Vis Per Mare, or “Strength from the Sea”.