As search for Malaysian plane continues, the Pentagon showcases presence in the Pacific


Sailors inspect the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Kidd in the Indian Ocean on Sunday. (U.S. Navy via EPA)

The expanding search for a missing Malaysian passenger plane has provided the Pentagon with an opportunity to showcase its presence in the Pacific region, where its planned expansion has been stymied by shrinking budgets and pushback from China.

Having dedicated sophisticated Navy ships and aircraft to the search, the U.S. military is casting itself as a benign actor capable of working cooperatively with Beijing in a part of the world where it is attempting to strengthen alliances and put its rival on notice.

Sailors aboard the USS Kidd, a destroyer that had been conducting a security mission in the South China Sea, were excited to join the search last week.

“The crew bought into this mission right from the start,” Cmdr. T.J. Zerr, the ship’s executive officer, said in a phone interview Sunday night. “For all of us on board, if one of our family members were on that plane, we would hope that anyone with the capabilities of our ships and aircraft would give anything they have to find it. That’s the spirit we’ve gone into this mission with.”

The ship was detached from the search Monday, the Navy announced. “With the search area expanding into the southern Indian Ocean, long range patrol aircraft” are more suited to the mission, the Navy said in a statement that noted the decision was taken in consultation with the Malaysian government.

Sailors on board the Kidd, which was surveying stretches of the Indian Ocean, had been working long hours searching for debris from the plane from the deck of the ship as well as the vantage point of its high-tech scanning devices and helicopters.

U.S. sailors have spotted suspected plane debris daily over the past week in the busy maritime corridor, which is heavily traveled by fishermen and commercial vessels, Zerr said. A large yellow item that had seemed like a promising lead turned out to be a tarp, probably left behind by a fisherman, he said. Buoys also have raised false alarms.

The search for the Malaysia Airlines plane, which is being led by the Malaysian government, involves more than two dozen nations, including China, which had 154 citizens aboard. Zerr said Malaysian officials have done a decent job of directing the search teams, which have been at the mercy of an investigation riddled with conflicting clues and sinister theories.

“Without a well-positioned area for a search, it’s a challenge,” Zerr said.

But his team was relentless, the commander noted. Sailors who normally are not required to perform deck observation duties volunteered for the assignments, and the crew logged fewer hours of sleep than usual.

Besides the USS Kidd, the Navy contributed the USS Pinckney and a long-range maritime patrol aircraft.

The missing airliner is the second recent crisis that has given the U.S. military an opportunity to demonstrate its rescue and relief capabilities in the Pacific. The United States deployed aircraft and ships to assist victims of the November 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.

The Obama administration announced its strategy to “pivot” or rebalance its military and diplomatic efforts toward Asia in 2011, in an attempt to foment stronger ties with several growing economies in the region. A bigger American role in Asia is widely considered a response to China’s accelerated military growth and a deterrent to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

U.S. officials have struggled to realize their vision for the Asia pivot because of budget constraints and a flurry of crises in the Middle East and North Africa that often have relegated the Pacific region to an afterthought. Katrina McFarland, a top Pentagon official who oversees acquisition, said this month during a conference that as a result of tighter budgets, the “pivot is being looked at again, because, candidly, it can’t happen.”

The Pentagon later sought to play down that assertion, saying that the strategy remains on course and will succeed even in an era of fiscal austerity.

Zerr, the second in command of the USS Kidd, said that military relationships the Navy has fostered in recent years have been crucial to close coordination during the search.

“When something like this happens, maritime nations band together and figure out how to make things happen,” he said.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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