YOKOSUKA, Japan (AP) — China's aircraft carrier ambitions demonstrate the continuing importance of the mammoth ships in the western Pacific, a senior U.S. Navy officer said Monday, as America's Japan-based carrier began a long journey home.
A symbol of American power in the Pacific, the USS George Washington left the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, its home port for the past seven years. It will be replaced by the USS Ronald Reagan, a newer version of the same ship.
"Everybody asks whether the aircraft carriers are obsolete," Navy Rear Admiral John Alexander said at a dockside news conference before the ship departed. "I would say when other countries are building an aircraft carrier, they're doing it for a reason, and the fact is you can actually have a bigger influence in the region."
The George Washington will conduct exercises in the region before heading home, Alexander said, but he wouldn't specify whether any would be in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
Sailors in dress whites lined the 1,092-foot- (333-meter-) long flight deck, and huge American and Japanese flags hung in the massive, open bays below. Families of crew members, some tearing up, waved American flags and held up handmade posters on shore.
The George Washington will rendezvous with the Ronald Reagan in San Diego, where about 2,000 of the crew from each ship will in essence trade places.
Commissioned in 1992, the George Washington will continue to Virginia, where it will undergo a multiyear overhaul and refueling of its two nuclear reactors.
The Ronald Reagan, commissioned in 2003, is due to arrive "later in the fall" to be the new flagship of the Yokosuka-based carrier group. Alexander said.