THE PENTAGON — The chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee again criticized Defense Secretary Ash Carter for a reluctance to detail U.S. presence operations in the South China Sea during a Thursday Senate hearing.
In the testy exchange between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carter, McCain was critical of Carter’s reluctance to confirm recent patrols of Philippines-based U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthog attack aircraft near the disputed Scarborough Shoal claimed both by Manila and Beijing.
The A-10 flights near Scarborough were widely reported and the Air Force acknowledged last week it was flying maritime security patrols from Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
McCain said the U.S. should be more forthright with what it’s doing in the region militarily and compared Carter’s deflection of questions to a similar exchange the pair had last October in which Carter reluctantly confirmed the widely reported freedom of navigation operation conducted by guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) past Chinese artificial holdings on Subi Reef.
“This is the second time, Secretary Carter, that you’ve refused to confirm what is well known in the media. That’s not fair to this committee. It’s all been reported there were flights and — into the area around those islands,” McCain said interrupting a line of questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)
“And why you would refuse to confirm that when it’s already been in the media is, I think, not the proper deference that this committee is owed.”
In reply, Carter said: “I’m only refusing because I believe it’s classified information, Senator.”
McCain picked up the thread following questions from Cotton to Carter on criticisms from former Obama administration defense secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates who were critical of how the administration publically spoke about defense policy.
“I don’t want to belabor the point, Mr. Secretary, but to classify the fact that we are sending our ships and airplanes into international waters and have that classified, when it should be magnified throughout the world that [the] United States is asserting our respect and adherence to international law, is something that is — is confusing and befuddling,” McCain said.
“Why would we want to classify the fact that we are doing what every nation in the world should be able to do? And that’s sail or fly wherever we want to. Why should that be classified information?”
In reply, Carter said:
“It’s a fair point. And I’ll look into why — what aspects of these operations are classified. I’m just respectful of the process, so I’m not going to talk about the details of operations. But there’s no question that — and I’ve said it many, many times, I say it again today. We fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits. We exercise that right routinely,” he said.
“The operational details of a particular flight — it’s a fair question why or what parts of it are classified. I’ll go back and look into it. But I — I’m careful about disclosing classified information or information I believe is classified not to this committee, because you all have access to it in the right setting, but not this setting. And the fact that something’s in the newspaper doesn’t make it unclassified, as we all know.”
Carter’s reluctance to discuss military operations in the Western Pacific follow reports in the last month the administration has asked military leaders to refrain from publically discussing operations that could provoke China via a memo from the National Security Council ahead of a recent nuclear summit, reported Navy Times this month.
In October, Carter and the Pentagon writ large were asked to remain silent on Lassen’s FON op past Subi Reef leading to weeks of confusion to what Chinese claims the U.S. were attempting to contest during the mission.
Following a similar January South China Sea FON op past Triton Island in the Paracel chain, U.S. officials quickly disclosed the operation and clearly outlined its goals.
The more recent A-10 patrols did not come within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal – the internationally recognized limit of territorial waters – according to press reports.
China has laid claim to the feature since 2012 and ownership of the territory is currently the subject of an international arbitration with the results due soon.
Leading up to the ultimate decision, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Reuters in March U.S. forces had seen survey ships near Scarborough – which in the past had been a precursor to land reclamation operations.