LCS Conducts First South China Sea FONOP of 2020

USS Montgomery near Fiery Cross Reef, Jan. 25, 2019 (USN)

Published Jan 28, 2020 9:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, the Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship USS Montgomery conducted the U.S. Navy's first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea for 2020. According to the Navy, the vessel passed near Johnson Reef and Fiery Cross Reef - two Chinese military installations in the contested Spratly Islands. 

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving notification or asking for permission, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, the United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions," said a spokesperson for U.S. 7th Fleet. (Vietnam and Taiwan also claim exclusive authority over the waters near these land features.)

According to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, the course of events ran differently. Col. Li Huamin, a spokesperson for the command, told state-owned media that PLA air and naval forces tracked down, identified and "expelled" the USS Montgomery. Li described Montgomery's transit as a "flagrant attempt at navigation hegemony," and he alleged that the "provocation" was timed to coincide with an important Chinese holiday.   

China claims "undisputed sovereignty" over the majority of the South China Sea, including substantial portions of the EEZs of neighboring nations. Chinese forces have built up a string of fortified island bases in the Spratly archipelago to assist in defending these claims. 

The transit marks a turnaround for the USS Montgomery and a new operational success for one of the two LCS vessel classes. When Montgomery set sail from San Diego in June 2019, it was the first time that an LCS had deployed in more than a year. Both LCS classes were plagued with mechanical casualties in their early years, leading to a "stand down" and a thorough overhaul of the LCS crewing and operating concept in 2016.

USS Montgomery herself experienced these early challenges. She suffered two engineering casualties on her maiden voyage in 2016; when she called at Naval Station Mayport for repairs, the aluminum vessel suffered a cracked hull and bent stringers after a severe collision with a tugboat. Once the repairs were completed, she transited through the Panama Canal, where she suffered another hull crack after alliding with a lock wall.