The US Navy (USN) aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) has been busy of late. After a six-month tour of the Western Pacific, the 104,200-ton vessel completed a three-week upkeep period in Yokosuka, Japan. The USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG) was then dispatched to the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean Peninsular on 24 November. The CSG subsequently engaged in a bilateral naval exercise with the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) in late November in a show of force directed against North Korea.
So far this exercise has been the most visible response from South Korea and USA after the worst episode of warmongering by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) since the Korean War reached a shaky truce on 27 July 1953. The unprovoked artillery barrage that rained down on Yeonpyeong Island killed four South Koreans – two Marines and two civilians. This island within sight of the DPRK mainland lies near the disputed demarcation line known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), an extension of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) on the peninsular. This area has become a flashpoint between the two Koreas. South Korea was conducting its annual Hoguk exercise series at the time, and the DPRK alleged hostile artillery rounds had landed in its waters to deliberately provoke this confrontation.
The attack unleashed in the maritime area came right on the heels of North Korea’s revelation on 12 November that it is already operating a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with multiple centrifuges. The sophistication of the new plant apparently caught intelligence experts by surprise, revealing just how little people really know about this ultra-secretive country undergoing a process of regime succession to Kim Jong Un. Uranium enrichment offers the DPRK another means of making nuclear bombs, in addition to its plutonium-based programme. It is widely believed this artillery barrage was an attempt to boost the militaristic credentials of heir apparent Kim Jong Un.
Exercise Invincible Spirit
This ROK-US naval exercise was the third in the bilateral Invincible Spirit series instituted after the sinking of the Pohang-class corvette ROKS Cheonan (PCC 722) on 26 March, in which 46 sailors died. The first four-day Invincible Spirit exercise took place from 25-28 July, and it focused on naval and air readiness. This training in the Sea of Japan involved 20 ships and submarines, plus 200 aircraft (including the F-22 Raptor). The second smaller-scale exercise from 27 September to 1 October comprised five days of anti-submarine warfare, appropriate since it was a North Korean Yeono-class mini-submarine believed to have sunk the Cheonan. This third exercise event of the Invincible Spirit series was originally scheduled for late October, but it had been postponed due to “scheduling issues”.
However, the artillery attack was sufficient reason to ensure the rescheduled exercise went ahead. The four-day war games commenced on 28 November, despite North Korean remarks they could trigger “full-blown war”. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated: “If the US brings its carrier to the West Sea of Korea at last, no one can predict the ensuing consequences.” The ROK was taking no chances, however. In the wake of the artillery attack, it deployed 4,000 extra ROK Marines on islands near the disputed NLL. Artillery, rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles (SAM) were also emplaced on Yeonpyeong Island.
In an interview with reporters aboard USS George Washington, Rear Admiral Dan Cloyd, Commander of Task Force 70 and CSG 5, said the aim of the exercise was to build “readiness and capability” to deter “North Korea and their provocations”. He optimistically added, “And we hope that being here side by side with our allies will deter them.”
This third Invincible Spirit exercise involved naval and aerial assets operating in waters west of South Korea. A communiqué from United States Forces Korea (USFK) stated: “While planned well before North Korea’s unprovoked artillery attack, the purpose of the training is to demonstrate ROK-US Alliance resolve, capability, and interoperability, as well as the US commitment to regional security.” Lieutenant General John D. Johnson, Commander of the Eighth US Army, added his voice: “The naval exercises taking place in the West Sea were planned in advance, and while they have nothing to do with the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, they are proof positive of our enduring commitment to defend the Republic of Korea.” All parties were keen to stress the exercise was defensive in nature.
The USN contributed more than 6,400 personnel and five ships from CSG 5. It was led by USS George Washington with its embarked Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5) comprising approximately 90 aircraft and helicopters, including F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The carrier was accompanied by USS Cowpens (CG 63), a 9,600-ton guided-missile cruiser equipped with Aegis radar and SM-2ER missiles. There were also three guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron 15 (DESRON 15), namely USS Lassen (DDG 82), USS Stethem (DDG 63) and USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62). The naval flotilla was supported by aircraft from the Seventh Air Force based in South Korea. These included eight F-16C Fighting Falcons and four A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft from the 51st Fighter Wing. While not officially listed as participating, it is certain at least one USN nuclear-powered submarine was present too.
The ‘home team’ was represented on a smaller scale. The ROKN contributed 900+ sailors on six ships, including the pride of the fleet, ROKS Sejong the Great (DDG 991). This 8,500-ton guided-missile cruiser is equipped with the AN/SPY-1D(V) Aegis radar system. There were also the destroyers ROKS Choi Young (DDH 981) and ROKS Dae Joyeong (DDH 977) of 4,500-ton displacement. The 2,350-ton Ulsan-class frigate ROKS Cheongju (FF 961) was present too. These capital ships were supported by the fast combat support ship ROKS Hwachun, and the 1,200-ton Pohang-class ROKS Sinseong (PCC 783). The surface fleet was supported by P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and Lynx helicopters. The ROK Air Force (ROKAF) was involved too – it supplied four F-15K and four KF-16 fighters.
The ships began assembling off South Korea’s western coast on 28 November, ready to kick off drills at 1500 hours. Even as the exercise began, the North vowed to retaliate if its territory was violated. “We will deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters,” threatened the state-controlled KCNA. However, there was little chance of this occurring as the drills occurred about 125km south of the NLL and 40km off the coast. Nevertheless, the official Yonhap news agency announced surface-to-surface missiles had been placed on launch pads, and SAMs had been transferred to Yellow Sea frontline areas.
Invincible Spirit involved high-end activities such as anti-aircraft and anti-surface warfare. Initially there was no mention of anti-submarine warfare, although it is known such drills were conducted. Standard logistical support missions such as replenishment at sea were carried out. Commander Jeff Davis, Public Affairs Officer of the Seventh Fleet, was at pains to point out the drill involved no live-firing.
Not only did North Korea vigorously protest, but China too voiced its hostility to this exercise on its doorstep. Instead of reproving its ally North Korea, China seemed more concerned about the ROK-US naval exercise. “We oppose any party to take any military acts in our exclusive economic zone without permission,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei. Ironically, almost all the waters of the Yellow Sea fall within China’s 200 nautical mile limit! The first Invincible Spirit exercise had relocated to the Sea of Japan out of sensitivity to China, but this issue was set aside considering the gravity of North Korea’s latest actions.
Not only did this exercise reinforce American commitment to South Korea, but it also reassured regional allies like Japan. At the conclusion of the exercise, RADM Cloyd reported, “It certainly sends a message of collective and unified deterrence – that we are prepared, we are ready, collectively, as allies.”
This was the first artillery attack on the South since the 1953 Armistice Agreement, even through the two sides are officially still at war. The naval drills were a warning to the DPRK, as well as a clear signal to China that it needs to reign in its long-time ally. The USA demonstrated to China it is not averse to showing itself in the Yellow Sea. While the bilateral exercise goes some way to demonstrating resolve, most commentators agree the response has been muted and restrained, some might even say “soft”.
A key question was how the North would respond to this latest Invincible Spirit exercise. Thus far there has been no discernible reaction, but the propensity of the North to act rashly is legendary. On 1 December, Won Sei Hoon, Chief of the ROK National Intelligence Service, warned the DPRK was planning further attacks on the five ROK-administered islands near the disputed maritime border. He said, “There is a high possibility that the North will make an additional attack.” He also asserted they had known via electronic surveillance obtained in August that the DPRK was planning such an attack. The ROK government has already issued new rules of engagement if civilians are again targeted. The incoming Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin promised his country would respond with airstrikes if the DPRK attacked. This is a significant departure from the government’s previous policy of proportionate response.