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US Naval Strike Group Shrugs off Pyongyang Threats

  • Daniel Schearf

North Korea this month lashed out at maritime rescue exercises involving U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces. State media called the trilateral exercises a prelude to war and said they were timed to destroy dialogue between the two Koreas.

The bellicose vitriol specifically targeted the USS George Washington, one of the U.S. Navy’s 10 so-called "supercarriers," the largest warships ever built.

The shrill language was typical for North Korean media, threatening that the nearer the carrier group comes the Korean peninsula, the closer it comes to an “unpredictable” and “horrible disaster.”

Two days after the drills ended, strike group commander Admiral Mark Montgomery shrugged off the rhetoric. Speaking before several invited reporters, he said “for us, we haven't changed our operational tempo or changed the manner or scope with which we're training our forces,” adding that he would “leave it to higher authorities to discuss what the implications of any specific North Korean actions are."

Routine rhetoric for routine drills

While North Korea routinely denounces U.S.-led military drills, Admiral Montgomery says the exercises are key to maintaining readiness.

The exercises also smooth communications among militaries from Japan and South Korea.

“There's always going to be challenges with different subtleties in the way we communicate," said Commanding Officer Captain Greg Fenton. "But, as a whole, we're very successful in overcoming those kinds of difficulties."

The George Washington leads the U.S. Navy's largest and only permanent forward-deployed strike group, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan. The nuclear-powered supercarrier carries about 80 aircraft and 6,000 crew and it is accompanied by nine warships, including cruisers, frigates and destroyers with ballistic missile defense.

According to Shin In-kyun of the private policy group Korea Defense Network, such firepower in the neighborhood draws a fierce reaction from Pyongyang.

“I think North Korea came up with the provocative words because North Korea’s military position would be weak if they do not do anything to warn about the movement of the USS George Washington," he said.

U.S. plans to increase its military presence in the Asia Pacific region could bring more warships to these waters, a concern to China, which has been building up its own navy while asserting territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China, Oct. 30, 2012.

Beijing last year launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. When asked how his strike group would react if China used the vessel to provoke U.S. forces, Admiral Montgomery implied that the scenario is unlikely.

“The United States' and China's navies cooperate very closely on a lot of issues,” he says. “So, the idea that we'd be planning for any specific thing like that is inappropriate."

China has been conducting its own drills on the re-fitted Russian-made carrier and claims to have had “hundreds” of successful launches and landings by its domestically produced jet fighters, including in bad weather and with the maximum load of weapons.

When asked to comment on China's aircraft carrier preparations, Montgomery says, “Aircraft carrier operations are a complex event and I'm sure that they're studying hard on it.

"[But] the United States looks at things more from our own capability and capacity," he adds. "We do these routine operations here... and we're very comfortable with our operational capability, with our readiness."

With just 20 aircraft carriers active around the world, the ships are symbols of both national prestige and powerful military assets, which is part of the reason why nations such as China and India are now launching their own.
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