Hong Kong: Somewhere in the Pacific, a stealthy United States Navy warship is carrying new weapons that analysts say could help to tilt the balance of power in contested areas like the South China Sea.
The USS Gabrielle Giffords, a sleek, speedy, low-profile littoral combat ship, left San Diego earlier this month carrying the US Navy’s new naval strike missile and a drone helicopter that helps aim it.
The naval strike missile is a sea-skimming cruise missile that is difficult to spot on radar, and can maneuver to avoid enemy defenses, according to Raytheon, the main US contractor for the weapon.
It is paired on the Gabrielle Giffords with a MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter drone, which is used to scout for targets.
The weapons will increase the lethality of the US navy, according to Cmdr John Fage, a spokesman who confirmed their deployment.
“The Pentagon is building a military force that can operate on a more sustainable basis and has a better chance of fighting and surviving within the PLA’s deadly anti-access, area denial envelope,” said Rand Corp senior defence analyst Timothy Heath, referring to the mix of ships, aircraft and missiles amassed by China’s People’s Liberation Army to control parts of the Pacific.
Both the US and China blame each other for the rapid militarization of the South China Sea, one of the most contested areas in the world. Multiple countries claim parts of the commerce-heavy region, but Beijing’s claim is by far the most expansive, covering the majority of the sea.
Since 2015, the Chinese government have attempted to back up their position through the militarization of reclaimed shoals and sandbars across the South China Sea, and said that repeated US Navy exercises in the region show it is necessary for China to be able to defend its interests.
“In the face of heavily armed ships and military aircraft, how can we not build defense facilities?” said Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangi-la Dialogue in June.