The three-destroyer pack that set China on edge in the contested South China Sea are back from their western Pacific deployment.

The destroyers Decatur, Momsen and Spruance, which made up the first-of-its-kind Pacific surface action group, returned to the states in the days following the election from their seven-month cruise. During their deployment the ships ducked in and out of the South China Sea, played cat and mouse with the Chinese fleet and surveilled China's man-made islands.

The group was dispatched in April on a quest to fine-tune so-called "distributed lethality" tactics, which breaks up more traditional strike groups and amphibious ready groups. Top surface warfare officer Vice Adm. Tom Rowden has been championing a concept designed to join up surface combatants that can spread out the enemy’s surveillance assets and ships, and that adds long range anti-ship and anti-sub weapons to make the ships more deadly. The destroyers were sent out to test the concepts in the real world.

Spruance and Decatur returned to San Diego Nov. 14; Momsen returned to Everett, Washington, Nov. 10.

During their patrols in the region, all three ships made close passes of Chinese-claimed islands. Most recently the Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China. The U.S. conducts the so-called FONOPS to challenge what they view as excessive claims by all parties and not just China.

China claims control of most of the South China Sea, and has sought to bolster those claims by building man-made islands atop reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands chain. Those claims were invalidated by a ruling in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which said China could not create territorial rights by building islands on reefs and sandbars. China rejected the ruling claiming, as it has from the outset, that the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

While it was in theater, the Navy put the ships under the control of the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet, headed by Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, instead of the Yokosuka, Japan-based 7th Fleet that would usually take charge of ships in the Asia-Pacific region. They also had an embarked squadron commander, Destroyer Squadron 31, led by Capt. Charles Johnson.

"I am honored to have served on the first PAC SAG with these hard-working Sailors," Johnson said in a Navy release. "Their loved ones should be proud of the perseverance they demonstrated these past seven months, and we are thrilled to be home."

Part of the motive for the unique deployment was to show that the Navy can provide a lot of presence without the services of a big deck or aircraft carrier, and that a three-ship surface action group can wreak a lot of havoc on its own. The Navy's carrier fleet has been strained as budget cuts and maintenance delays, combined with ever-increasing demands, have pushed deployments well beyond the traditional six months.

"We need to deploy the ships and begin to understand the effects we can achieve," Rowden said in a January interview with Navy Times. "We can then begin to articulate those to the combatant commanders. So when the combatant commanders say, 'I need this capability,' we can say, 'This is the capability I can deliver with this adaptive force package, this is what we can deliver with the other package.' That way we can express to the combatant commanders the options available beyond the carrier strike groups."

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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