US Navy joins AirAsia recovery efforts: why the US military is helping

The USS Sampson arrived in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia Tuesday afternoon and has helped to pinpoint the airliner’s debris field. The USS Fort Worth is standing by.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Johans Chavarro/US Navy/Handout/Reuters
The destroyer USS Sampson (DDG 102), seen here at Pearl Harbor on Nov. 6, has been assigned to assist in the search for AirAsia flight QZ8501 which went missing Sunday morning en route to Singapore.

The US Navy joined the search-and-recovery operations for the downed AirAsia flight, as the USS Sampson arrived in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia Tuesday afternoon.

Though heavy rain and winds have hampered the search efforts, the Navy destroyer has helped to pinpoint the airliner’s debris field with advanced radar, sonar, and optical sites.

The USS Sampson has been encountering two- to four-foot waves and 15- to 20-knot winds in the large and relatively shallow sea, which has made the water choppy.

“But our Navy ships are capable of operating in significantly worse weather than that,” says Lt. Lauren Cole, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan.

The ship’s search-and-rescue helicopters have also been operating “pretty much around the clock.”

That said, the weather “makes it a bit harder to see, ‘Oh, that’s a whitecap,’ versus ‘Oh, that’s debris,’ ” she adds.

For this reason, the ship has 330 sailors “standing continuous rotating watch” for four- to six-hour shifts.

This means “you have sailors stationed around the ship with binoculars and their bare eyes, looking out and scanning 360 degrees around the ship while it goes around a search area designated by the Indonesian government,” Lieutenant Cole says.

The search area consists of roughly 60 to 80 nautical-mile boxes. “Our ship is assigned to one of those boxes, and they are driving a search pattern in an expanding square, back and forth through that box, with the helicopters doing the same thing.”

Another Navy ship, the USS Fort Worth, is standing by prepared to aid in the search if it is requested, Navy officials say.

“We have a variety of Navy assets within the Seventh Fleet area,” which runs from India to the international date line and consists of some 124 million square miles, Cole says.

These potential assets include top-end technological capabilities and submersible drones.

“Our sonars and radars are designed to find enemy submarines, but you just tweak the bandwidth and you can pick up the surface clutter pretty well,” says Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington and former deputy director of operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Submersible drones may also “come in really, really handy,” he adds. “With its submersible drones, the US Navy is in a much better position to get its hands on flight data than other navies.”

By helping to gather data and recover those who were on the flight for their families, the operation builds goodwill as the US military moves forward with its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, Mr. Harmer says.

“It gets to the meat of why we do everything out here, in this region of the world,” Cole says, noting that the US Navy operates with 35 other maritime nations in the Asia-Pacific.

“Obviously there’s a gamut of political opinions and operations,” she adds. “But when countries work together, it can really create some bonds and supersede any potential political tensions or disagreements countries might have.”

“In situations like this, it’s phenomenal to see how countries work together and put things aside and assist with everything we can to make this a little bit easier on the families involved and help provide closure – and hopefully some answers.”

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