No Hard Feelings?

Sources in the US Navy have revealed that it will send an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer to the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November. The details of the participating ship have been sent to the New Zealand government but have not yet been released. However, I have it on good information that the ship will likely be the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG110). It is part of Pacific based Destroyer Squadron 21 and home ported at Naval Station San Diego. It is a relatively new ship, having been launched in 2009, christened in 2010 and entered into service in 2013.

Arleigh Burke class destroyers are gas turbine propelled and under peacetime conditions carry no nuclear munitions. So whether it is the USS Lawrence or a sister ship, the requirement that the visiting US grey hull be neither nuclear propelled or armed will have been met.

If indeed it is the ship being sent, the USS Lawrence has an interesting recent history. In May 2016 it participated in the freedom of navigation exercises the US Navy conducted in and around the Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed territories of the South China Sea that China has been building a reclaimed island upon. It has also conducted anti-poaching patrols and fisheries inspections in the Western Pacific in conjunction with local and regional fisheries agencies as well as the US Coast Guard, and undertook a recent port of call in Suva, Fiji. It most recently participated in the 30-nation Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises off of Hawai’i. In its present deployment it serves as something akin to a regional USN “guard ship” for the Southwestern Pacific. It even has its own Facebook page.

Readers will know that I publicly suggested that the US send the USS Mercy, a hospital ship home ported at Pearl Harbour. My reasoning was that the hospital ship could symbolise the humanitarian side of US naval operations (something that is a core mission of the RNZN) and could even do stop-overs in island states on the way to and from Auckland in order to offer check ups and exams, vaccinations and other medical assistance to disadvantaged Pacifika populations. Sending a hospital ship would be good PR for the US Navy and would also help defuse some of the opposition to the visit because it would look pretty silly for an activist flotilla to try and block an unarmed humanitarian vessel when other nation’s gunships received no such hostile welcome.

But no. That would be too much to ask of the US Navy. Instead, what they are sending is a ship of the destroyer class that succeeded the class of which the USS Buchanan (DDG-14) was part. In 1985 the USS Buchanan had pretty much the same role that the USS Lawrence does today. So after all of these years of acrimony, the US Navy has decided to send NZ the same, updated version of the boat that it tried to send in 1985.

Symbolism, much?

8 thoughts on “No Hard Feelings?

  1. C’mon Geopolitics rules, (at the point of a gun according to Chairman Mao).

    Isn’t there some heated discussion of “ownership” of some reefs and rocks that have been ignored by China, Malaysia, Phillipines, Vietnam, USA for centuries?

    OBTW whatever happened to TPPA?

  2. Peter: Given whats happening out there at the moment in the South China Sea with those “rocks” I’m surprised that they did not send something bigger.

  3. As long as the US conforms to our anti-nuclear requirement, then I have no problem with them sending any attack boat.

    Expect the left to protest regardless. I’m pacific too, but pragmatic enough to tolerate realpolitik diplomacy. I hope our leftists aren’t too puerile when the ship comes, as that tendency will always breed contempt for them in the minds of fair-minded kiwis. Leftists need to perform a healthy counter-balance in our political arena, and they can’t do so while continually sabotaging themselves.

    Currently I rate China as being more competitive than the USA when it comes to offensive imperialist geopolitical behaviour. Consequently I think we can improve upon the amoral spinelessness of the Nats that Labour & the Greens are tacitly supporting. I suggest a feisty, critical, stance. One that is ethically correct. One that targets the immorality of Chinese foreign policy. A useful start could be made by reminding everyone of the history of indigenous sovereignty in Tibet. Then delineate the historical failure of the Chinese to admit that. Then point out that organised lying about history is evidence of sociopathy.

  4. “under peacetime conditions carry no nuclear munitions”

    That may widely known to be the case, but has the US government ever officially confirmed this to be the case?

    If yes, then they’ve overturned a policy of not commenting on weapons deployments that goes back decades – just for the benefit of lil ol’ NZ.

    If no, then there’s the same issue that we had way back in the 1980s. Everybody knew that the USS Buchanan didn’t carry nuclear weapons, but because the US government refused to specifically confirm this fact in an official statement, its visit was deemed incompatible with the 1987 law.

    For the Key government to say that they will accept US naval visits as long as they are satisfied that they carry no nuclear weapons, and that an official statement is not needed, it will be a significant alteration of a nearly 30-year old policy that had bipartisan support.

  5. Danyl:

    By a Presidential Nuclear Initiative of Sept. 27, 1991, the US ceased deployment of nuclear weapons on all surface ships, attack submarines and land based naval aircraft under “normal circumstances.” Although it reserves the right to re-deploy tactical nuclear munitions should circumstances warrant, one can safely assume that a ceremonial port call on the occasion of the RNZN 75th anniversary is not one of them.

    For a history of US nuclear weapons at sea, see this: and this (even though it is a bit dated):

  6. Sure, one can assume. Just as one could assume the Buchanan didn’t carry any. But in 1987 assumuptions, even very strong assumptions with a lot of analytical weight on their side, weren’t considered good enough.

    If they are now, Key has made a policy change.

  7. Danyl,

    We will have to disagree on that. During the Cold War before Bush 41’s PNI, the US did in fact have many tactical nukes on board its ships and therefore used its “neither confirm or deny” policy as a cover to mask where they were deployed. Although it is reasonable to assume that the Buchanan did not have nukes, given the bellicose arrogance of the Reagan administration it would not be surprising to me if the Buchanan did have nukes on board (most likely ASW mines) just to make the point that the US could in fact violate any nation’s stance against nuclear weapons if it chose to do so (see the first link I provided above on how the US did this regularly during that time period). This is particularly the case given that the French had still not given up on nuclear testing in the SoPac and the US supported the French stance on the matter. Point scoring was big amongst the Reagan crowd.

    After 1991 that changed and although nuclear munitions were deployed on carriers in the Mediterranean during the first Gulf War, as far as I am aware none have been deployed in the SoPac since then (ballistic missile subs are a different matter).

    TBH, although it is clear that the Key government would bend over backwards to accommodate the US, in this instance I believe that the US has simply moved on and accepted NZ’s non-nuclear stance. After all, strategic competition between it and the PRC is heating up in the Western Pacific and given Chinese diplomatic and economic inroads in the SoPac it would seem sensible that the US shore up its military ties with allied nations and not allow a historical dispute that is more symbolic than substantive at this point hinder the full restoration of close military-to-military ties with NZ.

  8. Pablo: I agree that US/China competition in the Pacific has helped drive the current state of accommodation between NZ and the US on what used to be a rather thorny issue.

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