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An F/A-18E Super Hornet recovers aboard the USS Carl Vinson during a dual-carrier exercise in the South China Sea, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet recovers aboard the USS Carl Vinson during a dual-carrier exercise in the South China Sea, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. (Jeffrey Kempton/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy began drills in the South China Sea over the weekend that brought together two aircraft carriers, numerous warships and thousands of sailors and Marines in a potential hot spot.

Aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Carl Vinson, along with their respective strike groups, began training on Sunday that included anti-submarine and air warfare drills, deck-to-deck aircraft transfers, and at-sea refueling and resupplying, according to a Tuesday news release from U.S. 7th Fleet.

“Operations like these allow us to improve our combat credible capability, reassure our allies and partners, and demonstrate our resolve as a Navy to ensure regional stability and counter malign influence,” Rear Adm. J.T. Anderson, commander of the Abraham Lincoln’s strike group, said in the release.

The exercise’s exact location was not disclosed, but 7th Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Hayley Sims said in a Tuesday phone call that it took place in international waters.

The exercise was marred Monday when a Navy F-35C Lightning II fighter jet crashed while attempting to land on the Carl Vinson. Seven sailors, including the pilot, were injured, according to the Navy. Four were treated aboard the carrier, and three required medical evacuation. All seven were in stable condition, the Navy said in a Monday statement.

In addition to its aircraft contingent, Carrier Air Wing 9, the Abraham Lincoln strike group includes guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald, USS Gridley, USS Sampson and USS Spruance and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay, according to the news release.

However, Sims said, the Sampson was in Tonga on Tuesday providing disaster relief in the wake of a Jan. 14 volcanic eruption and tsunami, and the Fitzgerald was visiting its former homeport at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

The Carl Vinson strike group includes Carrier Air Wing 2, the guided-missile destroyers USS Stockdale and USS Chaffee, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain, the fleet replenishment ship USNS Yuko, and the cargo and ammunition ship USNS Washington Chambers.

The ships represent a force of more than 14,000 sailors and Marines, according to 7th Fleet.

Sunday’s operations started just a day after both strike groups completed a five-day exercise alongside the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga on Saturday near Okinawa, according to the Self-Defense Force’s official Twitter account.

The 7th Fleet routinely exercises in the South China Sea, a stage for increasing tensions between the United States and China.

The region’s last multicarrier operation took place in October near Taiwan in the Philippine Sea and involved the Carl Vinson, the USS Ronald Reagan and the United Kingdom’s HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, including numerous contested island chains also claimed by other nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. China frequently condemns the U.S. and its allies for military actions in the region, while the U.S. maintains it abides by international law.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not commented on either exercise as of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, China on Monday dispatched 39 military aircraft toward Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the most in one day since late last year, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Taiwan, on the northern limit of the sea, is considered a renegade province by Beijing, which seeks its reunification, by force, if necessary. The Chinese flights are considered a means of wearing down its air force.

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.
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