NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The Pentagon is stepping up its strategic messaging targeting China with the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson now underway in the South China Sea.
The Vinson strike group, including the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy, left a four-day port visit in the Philippines on Tuesday.
The carrier will resume operations in the contested sea — close to where China is militarizing several disputed islets, including Scarborough Shoal, some 100 miles from the Philippines.
The Vinson is expected to conduct a “freedom of navigation operation” involving disputed islands in the sea in the coming days. It also is expected to make a port call in Danang, Vietnam, next month.
“U.S. presence matters,” Rear Adm. John Fuller, strike group commander, told reporters on board the warship. “I think it’s very clear that we are in the South China Sea. We are operating.”
A Navy official was more specific: “Vinson ops in the [South China Sea] are designed to promote freedom of navigation, show the U.S./Navy flag and work with our partners and allies — all to message China that these waters aren’t theirs.”
The Navy expects Chinese warships to closely shadow the Vinson and its accompanying warships throughout its operations. “Typically, the interactions are professional and predictable,” the official said.
The Vinson visit followed an incident involving U.S. and Chinese warships in the region last month. China’s Defense Ministry claimed a Chinese warship forced the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper out of the South China Sea last month. The Pentagon denied that the warship was driven from the waters, where it was conducting a freedom of navigation operation.
The carrier deployment began in early January as part of a new Navy command arrangement called “3rd Fleet Forward” — control by the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, the force of ships based on the West Coast and Alaska.
In the past, 3rd Fleet forces automatically shifted command to the Japan-based 7th Fleet upon crossing the international dateline.
“The new 3rd Fleet Forward construct expands 3rd Fleet control of ships and aircraft across the Western Pacific and beyond the international dateline to India, enabling 3rd and 7th Fleet to operate together across a broad spectrum of maritime missions — 7th Fleet maintains the ‘fight tonight missions,’ and 3rd Fleet does the phase zero and presence missions,” the Navy official said.
The new command system “allows us to keep pressure on competitors and reassure allies, splitting the focus among two staffs. This is a good thing,” the official said.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that Chinese militarization in the sea was part of the reason he shifted U.S. defense strategy from terrorism to dealing with China and Russia.
“What made the competition explicit was the turning of atolls and features in the South China Sea in the military outposts,” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry so far have not directly criticized the Vinson deployment. Beijing appears to be holding its propaganda fire until after the Vinson’s freedom of navigation operation.
The Communist Party-linked newspaper Global Times quoted a Chinese military expert denouncing the Vinson’s deployment.
“The Trump administration is trying to pressure China by creating more issues, including the South China Sea issue, as it feels uneasy and unsatisfied by China’s raising competitiveness,” said Liu Weidong, a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Additional provocative moves by the U.S. such as entering the South China Sea can be expected in the future.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told reporters aboard the Vinson last week: “International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do that.”
MATTIS ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Defense Secretary James Mattis said high-tech artificial intelligence, or AI, will impact the nature of war and has changed his views on warfare.
“The fundamental nature of war is almost like H20, OK, and you know what it is,” he said. “It’s equipment, technology, courage competence, integration of capabilities, fear, cowardice — all these things mixed together into a very fundamentally unpredictable fundamental nature of war.”
The character of war is changing all the time, he said, noting that “an old dead German” — Carl von Clausewitz — once referred to war as “a chameleon,” constantly adapting to conditions, technology and terrain.
Artificial intelligence is the newest technology to impact warfare, where machines learn and adapt rapidly.
“For example, one of the most misnamed weapons in our system is the unmanned aerial vehicle,” Mr. Mattis said. “It may not have a person in the cockpit, but there’s someone flying it. There’s someone over their shoulder. There’s actually more people probably flying it than a manned airplane. There’s all these people taking the downloads from it. There’s people deciding to load bombs on it or not, or [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] cameras, surveillance cameras on it. It’s not unmanned.”
However, Mr. Mattis said, AI is “fundamentally different” and could alter the nature of war.
If the military ever reaches a point where “we’re all spectators,” the Pentagon chief said, then war would no longer be serving a political goal.
“And conflict is a social problem that needs social solutions, people, human solutions, OK?” he added.
Research and development of AI systems are in the early stages, and the Pentagon has initiatives underway to study AI and warfare.
Mr. Mattis declined to speculate how AI will affect warfare. “But I’m certainly questioning my original premise that the fundamental nature of war will not change. I just don’t have the answers yet.”
As reported in this space in August, a government-sponsored study said AI is revolutionizing warfare in ways comparable to the introduction of nuclear arms. The study also offered the dire prediction that AI could ultimately destroy humanity if machines took over.
AI and machine learning are advancing faster than experts expected and could revolutionize military and intelligence operations, said the study, conducted by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
AI weapons in the future could include robot assassins, superfast cyberattack machines, driverless car bombs and swarms of small explosive kamikaze drones.
RUSSIAN BEHIND ELECTION INFLUENCE OP
Special counsel Robert Mueller‘s indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies, made public last week, reveals that the key figure behind the covert action program is an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the 13 indicted Russians, was identified as head of Russia’s Concord Management and Consulting LLC — the company U.S. prosecutors say provided the money behind Russia’s bid to influence the 2016 election and sow political discord in the United States.
Mr. Prigozhin, who spent nine years in a Russian prison camp for robbery, got his start as a hot dog vendor in St. Petersburg and eventually met and befriended Mr. Putin on the way to riches, Britain’s Sunday Mail has reported.
Mr. Prigozhin built a restaurant and catering business, Concord Catering, and through Russian government largesse raked in some $3.5 billion since 2012 in contracts supplying food to schools and other facilities. He has been dubbed the “Kremlin’s caterer.” Both Concord companies were named in the indictment.
Mr. Prigozhin also is a key figure in the secretive Russian mercenary army known as the Wagner Group, according to The New York Times.
Wagner Group mercenaries in Syria were caught in a U.S. airstrike Feb. 7 after the mercenaries and pro-Syrian government rebels attacked U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Some 200 to 300 mercenaries were killed, despite a U.S. alert to the Russian military prior to the strike asking if any Russians would be in the line of fire.
Mr. Prigozhin told Russian news outlets in response to the indictment: “The Americans are really impressionable people. They see what they want to see. I greatly respect them. I am not at all disappointed to be on this list. If they want to see the devil — let them see one.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.