3 U.S. carriers may hold drill near Korea

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3 U.S. carriers may hold drill near Korea

A military exercise involving three U.S. aircraft carriers assembled near the Korean Peninsula may be conducted to coincide with President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia, which kicks off Sunday.

There are currently three U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups - the USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt - operating in the Seventh Fleet area of operations, which covers the eastern Indian and western Pacific oceans.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing U.S. defense officials, that the three U.S. aircraft carriers are scheduled to be traveling near the Korean Peninsula, and that the military may keep them in the area for maneuvers during Trump’s visit to the region.

According to the officials, this would make it the first military exercise involving three U.S. carriers in the area since 2007, sending an important message to Pyongyang. The last time three carrier strike groups were in the region at the same time was in 2011.

But a Korean government source said Thursday, “It has not yet been decided if a joint military exercise [with the South Korean Navy] will be carried out.”

The official added, “It is likely that the strike groups will be deployed as a ‘freedom of navigation’ operation,” part of Washington’s ongoing efforts to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China and East China seas. Such operations are expected to focus more on containing China than to serve as a direct show of force against North Korea.

The United States has routinely deployed warships as a part of its freedom of navigation exercises near disputed islands in the South China Sea, which Beijing has strongly denounced.

In a statement last month, the White House said Trump’s Asia trip “will underscore his commitment to longstanding United States alliances and partnerships, and reaffirm United States leadership in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” suggesting that Trump may pressure Beijing on the South China Sea issue, along with North Korea and trade issues.

The Nimitz carrier strike group arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for a port visit on Oct. 28, then headed back to its deployment in the U.S. Seventh Fleet the following day.

Supercarrier Theodore Roosevelt, which entered the Seventh Fleet area of operations on Oct. 23, arrived in Guam for the first time on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Navy, accompanied by guided-missile destroyers Halsey and Preble. The Theodore Roosevelt departed from its homeport of San Diego on Oct. 6 for a regularly-scheduled deployment to the U.S. Seventh and Fifth Fleet areas.

The Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, which operates out of Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, also completed a joint naval exercise with the South Korean Navy off the coast of the Korean Peninsula last month.

Nonetheless, the presence of the nuclear-powered supercarriers, key U.S. strategic assets, will send a strong signal against North Korea as Trump spends the next two weeks traveling across Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Carl Vinson strike group, based in San Diego, has also improved combat readiness after conducting carrier qualification exercises involving its first-ever stealth carrier-launched F-35C Lightning II fighters.

The fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35Cs, described as the “Navy’s future first-day-of-the-war strike fighter,” underwent flight operations on Oct. 18 aboard the Carl Vinson off the coast of Southern California, as the aircraft prepares to reach operating capability. An F-35C squadron would upgrade the carrier strike group’s lethality.

In June, the Ronald Reagan and Carl Vinson aircraft carriers conducted a rare joint naval exercise off the Korean Peninsula amid Pyongyang’s continued provocations.

The Chinese military is likewise developing its aircraft carrier capabilities. China has reached a technological breakthrough in naval propulsion, which would enable its second home-grown aircraft carrier to use an advanced jet launch system without having to resort to nuclear power, South China Morning Post reported Wednesday, citing military sources.

It added that an electromagnetic aircraft launch system on Type 002, China’s second home-grown aircraft carrier, would enable more aircraft to be launched in less time.

BY SARAH KIM, LEE CHUL-JAE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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