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Thousands of sailors return to San Diego after 7-month deployment in western Pacific

San Diego-based Navy and Marine Corps units attached to the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group returned from a seven-month deployment Thursday that included operations in contested western Pacific waters and the large multi-national Rim of the Pacific exercise.

The Abraham Lincoln deployed to the congested and contested Indo-Pacific region in January, relieving another San Diego-based carrier — the Carl Vinson — which had been in the region several months.

The deployment was notable for several reasons. Like the Vinson, Lincoln deployed with the Navy’s newest air wing configuration featuring the Pentagon’s newest aircraft — the F-35C Lightning II and the CMV-22B Osprey. Both squadrons are based in San Diego — the F-35s at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the Ospreys at Naval Air Station North Island.

The deployment was the first aircraft carrier deployment for a Marine Corps F-35C squadron. The Corps began basing its aircraft carrier-variant at Miramar in 2020. The Vinson was the first to deploy with a Navy F-35C squadron in 2021.

The Lincoln spent most of its deployment in the Seventh Fleet’s area of operations, which consists of the western Pacific and eastern Indian oceans. The United States and allied naval operations over the last few years have focused on the region as China’s navy grows and the country asserts waters considered to be international as territorial. China has also conducted operations near Taiwan, which it maintains is Chinese territory.

F-35C Lightning IIs launch from the San Diego-based aircraft carriers Carl Vinson, foreground, and Abraham Lincoln, background, on Jan. 22, 2022.

(Seaman Larissa T. Dougherty/ U.S. Navy)

“(We) demonstrated that we will professionally fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” said Rear Adm. J.T. Anderson, the strike group commander, at a pier-side news conference Thursday. “We conducted numerous combined exercises in the region to reassure allies and partners of our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The strike group’s deployment was also notable for where it didn’t go — like the Vinson’s previous deployment, Lincoln did not venture farther west into the Fifth Fleet waters of the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, underscoring the shift in priorities.

For much of the last two decades, West Coast aircraft carriers could expect a stint in the Middle East during western Pacific deployments. With the Pentagon’s pivot to what it calls “near-peer” competition with China and Russia, its focus now is on the sometimes-contested waters of the Indo-Pacific region.

In February, the Lincoln and Vinson engaged in dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea.

Abraham Lincoln and its strike group sail with the two Amphibious Ready Groups and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Ships of the America and Essex Amphibious Ready Groups, and the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, sail in formation with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force during exercise “Noble Fusion” in the Philippine Sea in February 2022.

(Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Cavenaile /U.S. Navy)

Last month at the tail of its deployment, Lincoln and its strike group participated in the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercise involving 38 ships, 170 aircraft and 25,000 troops from 26 countries. The exercise was the first full-scale RIMPAC since 2018. The Navy conducted a much smaller version in 2020 due to the pandemic.

This year’s exercise included operations with unmanned aerial drones as well as the unmanned surface vessels Nomad, Ranger, Sea Hawk and Sea Hunter, according to a Navy news release.

Anderson said he sees unmanned ships as a valuable component of future strike group operations. During RIMPAC, he said, one of the unmanned vessels was assigned to his combined task force for experimental operations.

“It was exceedingly successful, and I would say that I’m really excited for the future in terms of what manned and unmanned teaming can offer the maritime force as well as the joint force,” Anderson said.

The exercise featured ground and amphibious operations in addition to waterborne combat simulations.

On July 16, units from Australia, Canada, Malaysia and the U.S. conducted a sinking exercise — called a SINKEX — to test their weapons systems against an actual vessel. The decommissioned guided-missile frigate Rodney M. Davis was struck by ship-launched missiles and bombs dropped by aircraft, video of the exercise shows. The Navy said the ship was in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency rules and sunk in waters 15,000 feet deep.

Navy Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt talks at a news conference at Naval Air Station North Island Thursday.

Navy Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, commanding officer of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, talks at a news conference at Naval Air Station North Island Thursday.

(Andrew Dyer/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Thursday’s Coronado homecoming included thousands of family and friends waiting pier-side with signs and balloons. Following Navy tradition, new fathers — who hadn’t yet met their newborns — were the first off the ship.

Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, the commanding officer of the Lincoln, credited the work of her crew during the news conference. Bauernschmidt is the first female Navy officer to command an aircraft carrier. However, when asked about her historic role in the deployment, she again credited the sailors and Marines on Lincoln.

“There’s no more humbling experience than being in charge of professionals like this,” she said. “It’s great to see all their success.”

The guided-missile cruiser Mobile Bay and guided missile destroyer Spruance, who deployed with the strike group, also returned to San Diego Thursday. The guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald, also part of the strike group, will return to San Diego at a later date, the Navy said.

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