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Joint drills will be show of force

USS Ronald Reagan will take part in five-day training exercise
Oct 16,2017
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Defense Minister Song Young-moo, right, visits the nuclear-powered USS Michigan submarine at a naval base in Busan on Saturday. [YONHAP]
The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan will kick off a five-day training exercise with South Korea today in the East and Yellow Seas, in what local military officials said was a demonstration of force against North Korea that any provocation would face fierce retaliation.

It wasn’t clear as of press time Sunday whether Reagan and the rest of its strike group had already arrived in South Korean waters. Military officials did not say, due to the confidentiality of the information, while some sources only said on the condition of anonymity that they were expected to arrive some time on Sunday.

The American aircraft carrier, along with the South Korean Navy, will chiefly practice infiltrating North Korea from the sea, a drill known as the Maritime Counter Special Operations Force, or MCSOF. At 1,092 feet long, the Nimitz-class Ronald Reagan has a waterline beam of 134 feet, a flight deck 252 feet wide, and can normally carry 60 aircraft as well as some 5,000 crew members.

The USS Michigan, an Ohio-class guided-missile submarine of the U.S. Navy, which arrived in Busan last Saturday, will likely join the MCSOF drill as well. At 170.6 meters long and 12.8 meters wide (560 feet long and 42 feet wide), the submarine is known to be armed with nearly 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can travel more than 1,240 miles.

National Defense Minister Song Young-moo underscored the South Korea-U.S. alliance Saturday while visiting the submarine, contending that the joint exercise will display the “allies’ power of cooperation” as Pyongyang continues to raise tension.

North Korea, which vehemently opposes any joint military exercise between Seoul and Washington, castigating it as an “invasion” to topple the Kim Jong-un regime, hasn’t shown any imminent signs of a ballistic missile launch yet, local officials said Sunday, but military readiness appears to have upped to some degree.

One South Korean military official said the North was recently detected working on its SA-5 surface-to-air missile system after two American B-1B Lancer strategic bombers took a flight mission in international airspace near North Korea on Sept. 23.

The Pentagon later said in a statement that it was the “farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.”

The military source also mentioned North Korea was sporadically mobilizing its transporter-erector-launchers in “several areas” within the country, which could mean that it was preparing for a missile test. The launchers, also known as TELs, are vehicles that carry, transport and elevate a missile into a firing position before launch.

Seoul is looking to Wednesday as the possible date of a North Korean provocation, when China hold its national congress of the Communist Party, through which President Xi Jinping is expected to receive a second five-year term as the party’s top leader.

Chung Eui-yong, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s top national security advisor, said late last month that Pyongyang could stage a provocation either on that day or Oct. 10, when the North celebrates its 72nd founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Oct. 10 passed by without any missile test.

The upcoming military exercise between South Korea and the United States will also include the deployment of the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, a joint project between the U.S. Army and Air Force, which provides an airborne, stand-off range, surveillance and target acquisition radar and command and control center, according to descriptions from the U.S. Air Force.

The 7th Air Force said in a statement that the U.S. military will be represented at the 2017 Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, or Seoul ADEX 17, this week by the F-22 Raptor, A-10 Thunderbolt II, C-17 Globemaster III, C-130J Hercules, B-1B Lancer, KC-135 Stratotanker, E-3 Sentry, U-2 Dragon Lady, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and the Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter, the F-35A Lighting II, among other assets.

A local military official said far more U.S. strategic weapons will be displayed this year than normal for the air show, set to run from Tuesday through Sunday at the Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, which is probably intended to show that the country is prepared to dispatch them to the peninsula in case of war.

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea nears, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun quoted an unidentified source in Washington as saying that the White House chief is preparing to rally support for more pressure against the North Korean regime during his visit here, while reassuring Seoul and Tokyo that Washington would provide a nuclear umbrella.

Last Friday, Trump responded to a reporter asking him to clarify his stance on the North that the administration was “totally prepared for numerous things,” even for “negotiation,” without elaborating.

“I will say, look, if something can happen where we negotiate, I’m always open to that,” he said. “But if it’s going to be something other than negotiation, believe me, we are ready, moreso than we have ever been.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, BAE JAE-SUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]