The US Navy just quietly sent an F-35 aircraft carrier to the Pacific — and it signals a big change

An F-35B beginning its short takeoff from the USS America with an external weapons load.

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An F-35B beginning its short takeoff from the USS America with an external weapons load.
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Lockheed Martin

  • The US Navy deployed the USS Essex, a small-deck aircraft carrier, to the Western Pacific with a deck full of US Marine Corps F-35Bs Joint Strike Fighters – but it did it with secrecy.
  • The US typically hypes up F-35 deployments, but this time it was silent, perhaps signaling a big shift.
  • The US has major adversaries in the Western Pacific and may be shifting to a more operational approach to keeping them in check, rather than using media attention.

The US Navy broke with its tradition of hyping up F-35 deployments when it sent the USS Essex jump-jet carrier into the Western Pacific with a deck full of the revolutionary fighter jets this week – and it could signal a big change in how the US deals with its toughest adversaries.

When the USS Wasp became the first small-deck aircraft carrier to deploy with US Marine Corps F-35Bs earlier this year, the media was in on it. But the Essex’s departure marks a change, as the Navy announced the deployment only after the ship departed, USNI News noted.

The Navy regularly deploys capital ships like small- and large-deck carriers for patrols around the world but has only twice deployed ones like these.

The F-35 has become the most expensive weapons system in history and earned its share of criticism along the way as costs ballooned and deadlines fell through. The Marine Corps’ F-35B is designed to land vertically and take off from short runways, like an amphibious assault ship, and will replace the AV-8B Harrier in ground and air attack missions; the Navy’s F-35C has a tailhook to snag an arresting cable and land on an aircraft carrier.

Naturally, the US military would be keen to show off the jets, which it bills as a revolution in aerial combat because of their stealth design and advanced sensors and controls. But it seems it has opted to skip the public-relations coup for something a bit more operational.

The Navy wants to change the media’s expectations regarding ship deployments to the Pacific, sources told USNI News.

The US military usually prides itself on publicizing its ship deployments and often says its carrier deployments are drawn up apolitically and months ahead of time, but insisting on some level of secrecy betrays that.

What does the US Navy have to hide in the Pacific?

The flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Luzon Strait.

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The flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Luzon Strait.
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Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan McFarlane/US Navy

The US has major adversaries in the Pacific – namely China and, to a lesser extent, North Korea.

It makes sense that with dialogue underway with North Korea, the US would want to quiet big deployments to the Western Pacific, and a high-profile deployment of next-generation stealth jets could seriously spook North Korea.

But it’s China’s navy that poses the biggest threat to the US, and it’s possibly the reason the US is staying quiet.

When the USS Ronald Reagan, the US’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier in Japan, patrolled the South China Sea, which China unilaterally claims as its own in defiance of international law, the US said very little about it. Repeated requests for comment from Business Insider went ignored.

The US uses its Navy to challenge what it calls excessive maritime claims of dozens of nations around the world in passages called “freedom of navigation” operations. Basically, if a country claims an excessive amount of maritime territory, the US usually sails a destroyer through to inform it that its claims are not recognized.

China views these patrols as a challenge to its sovereignty and makes a big deal out of them. For the US, it’s better if the challenges to China’s claims are the norm and not a news story. Some observers have speculated that the US wants to send a message to China’s military leadership without the publicity that may compel them to escalate.

By keeping quiet high-profile deployments to the Pacific, the US could be signaling that it’s getting ready to put the ball back in China’s court, with high-end military hardware checking it and disputes handled between navies rather than via press releases.