Three aircraft carriers embarking two different models of F-35 stealth fighter have assembled in the waters around Okinawa.
The three-carrier group, with two American flattops and one British one, is among the most powerful naval formations to appear anywhere in many years.
And it’s not hard to understand the timing and location. The Chinese navy in recent weeks has been rehearsing an invasion of Taiwan. The three carriers are a warning—that an attack on the island democracy could have profound consequences.
The three flattops converged from separate directions. HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new conventionally-fueled carrier, along with her British, American and Dutch escorts for several weeks now has been crisscrossing the Western Pacific.
The 919-foot carrier with two squadrons of F-35B jump jets aboard—one from the Royal Air Force and another from the U.S. Marine Corps—departed the United Kingdom for her maiden cruise back in May, sailed through the Mediterranean and across the Indian Ocean to reach the Pacific via the Singapore Strait.
USS America was the first American flattop to join up with Queen Elizabeth. America, an 844-foot amphibious assault ship with a conventional powerplant, functions as a light carrier when she embarks a squadron or two of F-35Bs. She sails from Japan, usually in the company of destroyers and other amphibious ships from the U.S. 7th Fleet.
America and Queen Elizabeth spent last week refueling each other’s F-35s in a so-called “cross-decking” exercise. “This interaction showcased how quickly and seamlessly the U.S. and U.K. can fold together our combined air power and execute highly intricate and sustained flight operations to devastatingly lethal effect,” said Capt. Ken Ward, America’s skipper.
The San Diego-based, nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, carrying a squadron of catapult-launched F-35Cs, approached America and Queen Elizabeth from the east on Wednesday.
Together, the three carriers and their escorts possess more firepower than the entire fleets of most countries. The Chinese navy at present deploys just two flattops—both similar to Queen Elizabeth in size and capability.
Queen Elizabeth has 16 F-35Bs aboard. The Japan-based F-35B squadron that embarks on America has 10 jets. It’s not clear how many are aboard America right now. Vinson is the first of the U.S. Navy’s 10 supercarriers to sail with an F-35C squadron, 10 jets strong. The flattop also embarks around three dozen F/A-18E/F fighters and six EA-18G electronic-attack jets.
Add it up. That’s up to 36 F-35s plus another 40 or so F-18s. A three-deck carrier group with nearly 80 fast jets, half of them stealthy. The flattops’ dozen or so escorts and several attached submarines add hundreds of long-range missiles, including potentially scores of land-attack cruise missiles, to the mix.
The F-35 is the most obvious symbol of the group’s destructive potential. “Nothing even comes close!” said Capt. Richard LeBron, commodore of America’s Amphibious Squadron 11. “There is no better aviation platform to support 7th Fleet’s mission to ensure the United States can freely operate wherever and whenever it must, in alignment with international norms, standards, rules and laws.”
Taiwan’s independence is the norm at stake. The Chinese navy this summer has escalated its preparations for a possible assault across the Taiwan Strait. Most alarmingly, the navy has mobilized some of the civilian transport vessels the Chinese military would depend on to carry potentially hundreds of thousands of invading troops.