Asia Pacific

U.S.-South Korean joint naval drills kick off; nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan set to take part

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United States has sent the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to waters off South Korea for joint naval drills with its Asian ally amid simmering international outrage over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

The large-scale naval drills, known as Invincible Spirit, kicked off Monday and are due to run for six days, the South’s navy said in a statement.

On Monday, the allies carried out exercises involving ship-to-ground and submarine-to-ground cruise missiles with average flight ranges of up to 1,000 km, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

The exercises come just days after reports that the North may be making preparations for a sixth nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch.

“The Invincible Spirit exercise is aimed at showing the allied forces’ strong commitment to counter relentless provocations by the North and improve their maritime interoperability,” the South Korean Navy statement said.

In addition to the Yokosuka, Kanagawa-based Ronald Reagan, flagship of Carrier Strike Group 5, dozens of warships and submarines from the two navies are participating in the drills, the statement said.

The two navies were also to carry out joint drills in the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea targeting virtual North Korean special commando groups attempting to penetrate sea demarcation lines, it said.

In waters off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula, the USS Ronald Reagan-led carrier strike group was to conduct anti-submarine, anti-aircraft and precision-guided striking operations, the statement added.

The exercises will also include rehearsals of the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan, which targets North Korean leaders and atomic sites in the event of an imminent nuclear strike by Pyongyang, the Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean Defense Ministry official as saying. The plan would employ both missile strikes and special operations forces.

“President Park (Geun-hye) will certainty be eager to demonstrate a robust defense posture based on a strong U.S.-ROK security alliance,” said Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at the Tohoku University School of Law. “The large-scale mobilization by South Korea of 40 warships, including Aegis destroyers, suggests that the ROK may show its ability to intercept DPRK missiles and to target the North Korean nuclear weapon sites.”

The U.S. and South Korea last conducted a joint naval exercise under the Invincible Spirit designation in July 2010 in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette by the North that killed 46 sailors. The USS George Washington, which was replaced by the Reagan at Yokosuka last year, took part in those drills.

Pyongyang has ratcheted up tensions on the peninsula this year with two atomic tests and a slew of ballistic missile launches, including a volley of three fired while China was hosting a Group of 20 summit in the southeastern city of Hangzhou. The three missiles fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in waters west of Hokkaido.

The reclusive nation also stoked concern in August when it claimed to have successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called that test “the greatest success” after the missile landed in Japan’s air defense identification zone, flying about 500 km — its longest test-flight by a weapon of that type.

The SLBM test has left the United States, South Korea and Japan worried that further developmental successes could give the North a difficult-to-detect weapon that would pose a serious security threat to all of them.

The U.S. and its Asian allies have responded to the North’s tests by showing off their own military muscle.

Late last month, the U.S. and South Korea conducted joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan after Washington earlier in the month flew two supersonic bombers over the South — with one landing on the Korean Peninsula for the first time in 20 years.

One of the bombers also flew the closest a B-1B strategic bomber had ever flown to the border between the North and South. It was the second time in less than a month that the U.S., which has about 28,500 troops in South Korea, had flown bombers over the country.