The U.S. military is beefing up its military capabilities in the Pacific by deploying high-tech aircraft and Navy vessels amid worsening assessments of the prospects of an early solution of the North Korean nuclear standoff.
B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and F-15E fighter jets were deployed in Guam recently on a rotation basis. Experts noted the bombers and fighters have the range to strike North Korea's nuclear facilities and high-profile stocks of missiles in the event of any conflict.
The U.S. military plans to introduce two newer Aegis combat system vessels in Japan this summer, replacing one Aegis-equipped vessel and another old destroyer, making the total number of Aegis-equipped warships seven.
The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force runs four Aegis-equipped ships, making 11 Aegis ships in East Sea in emergency.
The U.S. military would not provide any official confirmation, saying that "as a matter of policy, we do not discuss exercise scenarios or specifics of any operations."
"However, several Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers have operated in the East Sea as part of several exercises held in conjunction with the Republic of Korea Navy in the past several months," said David Oten, chief public information official at United States Forces Korea. "Each of these exercises was held in accordance with international maritime law and in full compliance with the principles of freedom of navigation."
These military developments in the western Pacific are part of the U.S. deterrent against any possible North Korean aggression, but also could heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula as Washington's patience wears thin in dealing with Pyongyang, some Korean military officials said.
"Though the U.S. military says the deployments are part of rotations planned beforehand and unrelated to any particular threat, the updated capabilities as well as current military capabilities are remarkable," said a Korean military officer on condition of anonymity.
For the first time, a B-2 Spirit bomber squadron with stealth functions was deployed in late February for a two-month tour of duty at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to enhance regional security in the western Pacific, according to U.S. Air Force officials. But the squadron is extending its stay for an indefinite time.
More than 270 airmen of the 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron were deployed from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, currently the only B-2 unit in the U.S. Air Force.
Twelve F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, arrived at Andersen in Guam recently on indefinite deployment, according to Stars & Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper.
The fighter presence is supported by the New York Air National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing, which means the fighters can extend their combat activities through aerial refueling, rolling in over a wide range of the Korean Peninsula.
Adding to the significant U.S. deterrent are the Aegis-equipped warships.
U.S. Navy officials announced the newer, advanced Aegis combat warships will replace two guided-missile vessels leaving Yokosuka, Japan, for decommissioning in San Diego.
The Aegis-equiped destroyer USS Lassen is expected to arrive at Yokosuka Naval Base around June, replacing the cruiser USS Vincennes. The USS Stethem will be deployed in September, replacing the USS Cushing. Both vessels are presently based in San Diego.
Additionally, three warships from the 7th Fleet are on rotating patrol duty in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to detect any ballistic missile firings by North Korea and relay the information immediately to systems capable of shooting down any missiles. The ships are the USS Curtis Wilbur, USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald.
The other two are the USS Cowpens and USS Chancellorsville, both Yokosuka-based Aegis guided-missile cruisers.
The Aegis combat system is part of the U.S. deterrent against North Korea, military officials said, recalling remarks this past week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after North Korea test-fired a short-range missile.
Rice said on Monday that the United States "maintains significant deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region" to thwart the communist state's nuclear ambitions.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon's blunt assessment Wednesday of prospects regarding the stalled six-party talks also reflected a growing negative atmosphere in the region.
Ban said the standoff on North Korea's nuclear program has reached a "level of considerable concern" and the prospects of reopening the six-party talks to resolve the dispute are not bright.
His comments raised speculation that the United States might have notified the Seoul government it could discuss increasing pressure against Pyongyang if the North shows no signs of returning to the six-way talks in a specific period.
"When a diplomatic chief says the issue is difficult to get resolved diplomatically, then the remarks indicate it is already a serious situation," a Korean military official commented.
By Joo Sang-min
The Korea Herald.