U.S., S. Korea aim to strike the right tone as exercise kicks off
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON — The massive Invincible Spirit military exercise kicked off Sunday with the United States and South Korea walking a tightrope of sorts - trying to send a message of strength to North Korea while making sure not to overtly provoke the rogue nation.
While 8,000 servicemembers, 20 ships and submarines and 200 aircraft are being put into action during the four-day exercise in the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula, officials stress nothing will be done anywhere near North Korea’s maritime border.
“We won’t come close to North Korea,” said Navy Capt. Ross Myers, commander of Carrier Air Wing 5, which is embarked aboard the George Washington. “We do not want to be provocative … therefore we will stay well away from the northern limit line.
“For them to see us, they’re going to have to come south, and that would be an act of war,” he said.
Rear Adm. Dan Cloyd, commander of Task Force 70 and the man in charge of the U.S. portion of the exercise, hinted that some North Korean activity had been detected during the first day of the exercise in international waters.
He declined to go into detail other than to say it was not something “I would be overly concerned about.”
North Korean officials have warned in recent days that they would respond “physically” and would not hesitate to use a “nuclear deterrent” in response to the exercise.
Invincible Spirit was scheduled as one of a number of measures the U.S. and South Korea have taken in response to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship.
Fourty-six South Korean crewmen were killed in that incident, which a South-led team of investigators determined was the result of a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. North Korea has denied any responsibility for sinking the Cheonan.
With a pool of 11 journalists on board, the USS George Washington left port from the South Korean city of Pusan at 8 a.m. Sunday to start the exercise.
Officials on board were consistent in stressing that while the Invincible Spirit exercise was designed as a response to the Cheonan incident, the U.S. and South Korea regularly hold such joint training sessions.
They also echoed comments made by high-ranking U.S. officials over the past week, who insisted that the exercise was not staged in the Sea of Japan because of concerns expressed by Chinese officials, who made clear they did not want it in the Yellow Sea, on the west side of the peninsula and near China’s eastern waters.
“We reserve the right to operate in international waters anywhere in the world … in the future,” Cloyd said, insisting the exercise was never going to be in the Yellow Sea. “We never moved the exercises.”
U.S. officials have said Invincible Spirit is the first in a series of Cheonan-related joint exercises, and future drills will be staged west of the Korean peninsula.
On Sunday, F-18s and other aircraft took off and landed on the George Washington’s flight deck throughout the afternoon, and they were scheduled to continue doing so into the evening. Meanwhile, other South Korean and U.S. warships, including a submarine, could be seen in the distance moving north along with the aircraft carrier.
“This is an awesome opportunity for the United States and South Korean militaries to work together to increase our combat capabilities and to further the deterrence of aggression in the region,” Myers said.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement earlier this month expressing concern about the sinking of the Cheonan, but stopping short of blaming North Korea.
Myers said while the statement did not specifically blame the North, “It is widely held that they were responsible for it. We know it didn’t sink by itself.”
Despite the unanimous belief that the U.S. and South Korea have far superior military firepower than North Korea, those on board the aircraft carrier said nothing can be taken for granted.
“Any irrational actor in a conflict is always a credible (one),” Myers said.
Said George Washington skipper Capt. David A. Lausman: “It’s very dangerous for people to become unpredictable. There is no such thing as a low-intensity conflict.”
The officers insisted that despite the size of the Invincible Spirit exercise – and the response it received from both North Korea and China – the U.S. and South Korea could not be accused of trying to provoke a conflict.
“I would contend it is not provocation and destabilizing, but the exact opposite,” Myers said. “We are promoting peace and stability, which is exactly what North Korea does not want. Our mere presence here brings stability to the region.”
“We are prepared for conflict (but) I pray it never happens,” added Lausman.
Referring to North Korean leaders, Cloyd said he hoped the Invincible Spirit exercise, “will give them pause as they make decisions in the future.”