BUSAN — Dozens of aircraft were lined up on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz, with a flight deck about the size of three football fields and the top of the mast the equivalent of some 23 stories high from the keel.
Aircraft ready for battle on the US Navy’s nuclear-powered supercarrier included the F/A-18 Super Hornet tactical aircraft, E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning and battle management aircraft, Sea Hawk submarine hunter and anti-surface warfare helicopters and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, according to US officials. Half of them were on the deck with the rest secured in the hangar bay below the flight deck, they added.
The movable air base, powered by two nuclear reactors, anchored alongside two destroyers armed with missiles at a naval base in Busan on Tuesday morning to demonstrate the allies’ enduring commitment to the defense of South Korea, amid North Korea’s persisting saber-rattling.
With a total of around 5,000 crew members and 70 aircraft, the 100,000-metric ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Decatur were anchored at the South Korean Fleet Command decorated with South Korean and US flags at around 10 a.m.
“It’s a great representation of the United States’ ironclad commitment to the safety and security of the Republic of Korea,” Commander of the US Naval Forces Korea Rear Adm. Mark Schafer told reporters during a news conference held on the flight deck, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea. “It’s an opportunity to reinforce the mission readiness between the ROK navy and the US Navy.”
The US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are the epitome of US military strength and are a means to flex US military muscle abroad. US aircraft carriers can project air power anywhere in the world and have capabilities to operate in all domains, from space to undersea.
South Korea sees the deployment of the US supercarrier on the Korean Peninsula as a way to exhibit extended deterrence, which is the US commitment to deter or respond to coercion and external attacks on US allies and partners with the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons.
But the emboldened Kim Jong-un regime in the North ratcheted up tensions instead of cowering before the appearance of the US key strategic asset on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korean state media for the first time disclosed tactical nuclear warheads designed to hit key targets in South Korean territory hours before the aircraft carrier and its strike group entered the naval base.
In an apparent warning to the allies, state media concurrently claimed that Pyongyang had conducted another test of a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone -- which was developed to stealthily submerge into enemy operational areas and destroy enemy warships and key naval bases by generating a radioactive tsunami -- from March 25 to 27. Pyongyang also said it conducted a live-fire drill practicing exploding tactical nuclear weapons mounted on two ballistic missiles in the air.
‘Not going to be coerced’
Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney, the commander of the carrier strike group, however, dismissed North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric, underscoring that the deployment of the US aircraft carrier is intended to assure US allies at the “very basic maritime security level.”
“Let me just get to the message again: We don’t seek conflict with the DPRK. We seek peace and security. We’re not going to be coerced. We’re not going to be bullied and we’re not going anywhere,” he said, referring to North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We are prepared for any contingency and we train at all levels and in all domains from space to the undersea with our allies.”
Sweeney said the US and South Korean navies and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will stage maritime exercises after the carrier strike group leaves the Busan Naval Base to improve interoperability among the three countries that commonly seek security.
The trilateral maritime drills are expected to be staged early next week in international waters given that the US strike group is scheduled to anchor at the naval base in Busan until this weekend, South Korean and US military sources confirmed to The Korea Herald.
Before entering the Busan Naval Base, the USS Nimitz and its strike group staged combined maritime drills with South Korean Navy warships in international waters south of Jeju Island on Monday morning. North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea just before the drills began.
“We always talk about how the DPRK is furthering its capability, and so are we,” Sweeney said. “And not just with the US Navy, but as a joint force with our allies here in the Republic of Korea.”
Sweeney underscored that the “alliance is prepared to adapt to new challenges and threats to ensure the security of future generations of Koreans and Americans.”
The US aircraft carrier’s planned visit was the first of its kind since September last year when the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan also anchored at the Busan Naval Base.
The US’ latest dispatch of an aircraft carrier has different significance at a juncture when the allies have stepped up the deployment of US strategic assets in a bid to enhance their deterrence and readiness posture against escalating missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.
The commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group said South Korea will “likely see further strike groups” in the region.
North Korea’s accelerated nuclear and military buildup has raised questions over whether such frequent deployments of US strategic assets have been effective in deterring North Korea’s aggression, while simultaneously refueling debates over South Korea’s own nuclear armament.
North Korea has conducted seven sets of missile launches in less than three weeks in tit-for-tat moves in response to the revival of large-scale field training exercises between the US and South Korea. North Korea fired a total of 18 ballistic and cruise missiles, including one intercontinental ballistic missile, within 19 days starting on March 9. The North Korean state media on Friday also claimed that Pyongyang tested a new nuclear-capable underwater attack drone.
Rear Adm. Schafer said the US has been “paying close attention” when asked by The Korea Herald whether the recent continuing dispatches of US strategic assets to South Korea has affected North Korea’s behaviors and changed the perception of the North Korean leadership.
The commander of the US Naval Forces Korea also underscored that it is important for the allies to make every effort to enhance their deterrence and readiness posture.
“But we’re absolutely sure in our mission readiness that the more often the ROK Navy and the US Navy work together, we are doing what we can to fulfill our responsibilities in this alliance and then to be as ready as we can be,” Schafer said.
“We want to do all that we can to preserve peace and deter any provocation and aggression, so we focus on mission readiness between our allies and partners.”