Navy amphibious warships arrive in South Korea for large-scale ‘double dragons’ exercise
Stars and Stripes March 23, 2023
BUSAN, South Korea — A U.S. Navy amphibious ready group — 5,500 sailors and Marines and three warships — arrived at South Korea’s largest port Wednesday for the largest naval exercise by the two allies in five years.
The amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island and its accompanying amphibious transport docks USS Anchorage and USS John P. Murtha steamed into Busan for Ssangyong, an exercise that began Monday across South Korea.
The exercise will “continue to build trust between our two countries” and is the “linchpin for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” Navy Capt. Tony Chavez, the Makin Island’s commander, said at a press conference aboard the ship.
Chavez described Ssangyong as a defensive exercise.
“It does not matter where that threat is coming from, we are ensuring that we are able to amass forces to maintain maritime and air superiority and defend northeast Asia or all of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Ssangyong translates to “double dragons” and refers to the U.S. and South Korean military alliance, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman told Stars and Stripes by phone Thursday. It’s customary in South Korea for some government officials to speak to the media without providing their names.
The two-week exercise is scheduled to include more than 30 ships and 70 aircraft from both countries, including South Korean F-35A and Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters, according to the ministry spokesman.
More than 50 South Korean amphibious assault vessels are expected to take part in a landing drill in nearby Pohang City.
“This year, the Ssangyong training will be conducted in a large-scale to strengthen our alliance’s combat readiness and to improve interoperability,” Capt. Lee Hee Jung of the South Korean Fleet Command said at the press conference. The military uses “interoperability” to describe the ability of a country’s armed forces to use another country’s training methods and military equipment.
The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group’s arrival comes nearly six months after the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan returned to Busan for maritime drills with South Korea’s navy for the first time since 2017.
Earlier this month, the San Diego-based group took part in Cobra Gold, an annual exercise in Thailand, where it worked alongside the South Korean, Thai, Japanese, Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian navies.
Military exercises like Ssangyong have been taking place throughout South Korea in recent days.
On Thursday, around 800 U.S. and 400 South Korean soldiers wrapped up a four-day live-fire drill as part of a separate exercise in Pocheon city, about 16 miles from the border with North Korea.
Ssangyong was put on hold after 2018 when then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then-President Donald Trump agreed to scale back large-scale exercises. At the time, Trump and Moon attempted to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the denuclearization of his country.
Despite summits between the leaders in Singapore, Vietnam and the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, those talks fell short due to differences in sanctions relief for Pyongyang and denuclearization goals for Seoul and Washington.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated in May, vowed to restart the drills and pledged to meet North Korea’s provocations with military strength.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup in a joint statement Jan. 1 said the two countries will “continue to deploy U.S. strategic assets in a timely and coordinated manner in the future” in response to Pyongyang’s threats.
North Korea has fired nine ballistic missiles so far this year. In its state-run media, the communist regime likens the ongoing drills in the South to a declaration of war.