U.S. Navy announces swap of Japan-based aircraft carriers in 2024.

Photo: The USS George Washington departs a dry dock to moor at a pier at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia in September 2019.   © U.S. Navy

USS George Washington to return to Yokosuka to replace the Ronald Reagan.

By KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asia

The U.S. Navy announced on Friday that the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington will return to Yokosuka, Japan, next year. It will replace the USS Ronald Reagan as the Navy’s sole forward-deployed carrier, tasked with projecting American naval power in the Indo-Pacific.

This will be the George Washington’s second time serving as the Yokosuka-based carrier, having come in 2008 as the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier forward-deployed to Japan. After a seven-year stint, it was relieved by the Ronald Reagan in 2015.

The George Washington is currently undergoing a multiyear refuelling and complex overhaul in Virginia. The procedure is performed only once during a carrier’s 50-year service life and includes the refuelling of its two nuclear reactors.

While in the dock, the George Washington is being modified to field the Boeing MQ-25A Stingray, the world’s first operational, carrier-based unmanned refuelling drone. The drone can refuel carrier-based aircraft, such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet, some 800 kilometres away from the vessel.

The Navy said that before the George Washington’s return to Japan, the Ronald Reagan will depart Yokosuka and relocate to Bremerton, Washington, for maintenance.

While the Ronald Reagan will depart Japan in the spring of 2024 and the George Washington will only arrive in the second half of the year, the Navy will continue to rotate carriers in the region to ensure there are no gaps.

On Friday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Director General of the North American Affairs Bureau Yasuhiro Kobe visited Yokosuka Mayor Katsuaki Kamiji to brief him on the move. Kobe said the Japanese side officially received notice from the U.S. Embassy in Japan and United States Forces Japan on Thursday.

Kamiji said he understood maintaining the U.S. naval presence is important for the peace and security of Japan and the stability of the region under the current environment. But, he noted this will be the first time a carrier that has undergone refuelling of its reactors being forward-deployed to Yokosuka and requested the government press the U.S. side to commit to the safety of the nuclear vessel.

“We want the crew and family of the George Washington to know that Yokosuka is their second home,” Kamiji added.

Nikkei Asia reported in March that the Navy had begun preparations to replace the Ronald Reagan by 2025. A clause in the fiscal 2019 U.S. defence budget stipulated that the overseas forward deployment of naval vessels should be limited to 10 years. This meant that the Ronald Reagan would have to be replaced by the 10-year mark in October 2025.

The rule was introduced following two collisions involving Yokosuka-based destroyers in 2017. Both the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald had been deployed to Yokosuka for over a decade, and Congress concluded that naval vessels needed to be rotated more frequently to maintain top condition.



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