May 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Navy continues its exercises in the Western Pacific Ocean despite the postponement of multinational maneuvers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Independence-class Navy littoral combats ships patrolled the contested South China Sea this week, with the USS Montgomery and USNS Cesar Chavez arriving on May 7 in support of a Panamanian-registered drill ship. The USS Gabrielle Giffords arrived on Tuesday, a Navy statement said.
Last week the Air Force and Marines conducted training exercises near China amid increased tensions in the region, the site of competing maritime claims. In the nearby Philippine Sea, three submarines joined ships and aircraft of the U.S. 7th Fleet for a joint advanced warfighting training exercise.
The actions are, in part, a show of force in an area of competing maritime claims, and a reaction to Chinese harassment of the ship drilling for resources in waters claimed by China, which the United States and other countries regard as international waters.
In late April, three U.S. ships -- the guided missile cruisers USS America and USS Bunker Hill, and the amphibious assault vessel USS Barry -- joined the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta and sailed together in the region to demonstrate a commitment to keeping the sea open.
"The versatility and flexibility of Independence-variant littoral combat ships rotationally deployed to Southeast Asia is a game changer," said Rear Adm. Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7. "Like Montgomery's previous operations, Gabrielle Giffords' operations near West Capella [the drill ship] demonstrate the depth of capability the U.S. Navy has available in the region. There is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific than positive and persistent U.S. Naval engagement in this region."
Vice Adm. Bill Merz, 7th Fleet commander, said the United States will operate in South China Sea waters wherever international law permits.
"Routine presence operations, like Gabrielle Giffords', reaffirms the U.S. will continue to fly and sail freely, in accordance with international law and maritime norms, regardless of excessive claims or current events," said Merz. "The U.S. supports the efforts of our allies and partners in the lawful pursuit of their economic interests."
The Philippine Sea exercise, from May 2 to 8, involved exercises in surface, subsurface, amphibious operations, reconnaissance and surveillance specialties. It concentrated on integrated exercises between submarines and surface vessels, "to develop warfighting concepts, improve maritime lethality, and enable real-world proficiency and readiness," a 7th Fleet statement said last week.