Three U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are operating off the coast of North Korea, the largest concentration of naval firepower in a decade. The carriers are conducting four days of drills in the Sea of Japan with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, with at least one guest appearance by B-1 heavy bombers.
Late last month, Popular Mechanics reported that three aircraft carriers: USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and USS Theodore Roosevelt were in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations. Based in Yokosuka, Japan, the 7th Fleet covers an enormous swath of the world’s oceans, from the India-Pakistan border to just off Hawaii. Although thousands of miles apart, there was some speculation that the three carriers could rendezvous off Korean peninsula to send a warning to North Korean leader Kim Jong un. The U.S. Navy told Voice of America news that such an event was unlikely but that it was “flexible”.
Well, it happened. On Saturday Nimitz, Ronald Reagan, and Roosevelt all met up in Sea of Japan, off the coast of North Korea for four days of drills. A total of twelve strike fighter squadrons are embarked on the three ships, including 10 squadrons of F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets and 2 squadrons of F/A-18C Hornets. Each aircraft carrier is accompanied by other elements of its carrier strike group, including a cruiser, guided missile destroyers, and a nuclear attack submarine.
In addition to the U.S. forces, a helicopter carrier and two destroyers from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, Japan’s navy, joined the exercise. JS Ise, the second of three new “helicopter destroyers” (basically, helicopter carriers) led a small flotilla also consisting of the destroyers Makinami and Murasame. A separate exercise on the same day involved the South Korean navy, with seven Republic of Korea Navy ships participating. (South Korea reportedly rejected a proposed exercise involving all three navies at once.)
The last time three U.S. Navy aircraft carriers steamed together was in 2006 and 2007, for the Valiant Shield exercises off the coast of Guam.
At one point in the day a pair of US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew low over the US/South Korean naval task force. Flying from Andersen Air Force base on Guam, the two heavy bombers were flanked by Navy Hornets.
In related news, the U.S. Navy admitted to Congress last week that only 31 percent of its Super Hornet fighters, some 170 aircraft, were fully combat capable and ready to fight. The service is facing an across the board hardware readiness shortage, from strike fighters to submarines, due to maintenance complications, a high operational tempo placing unexpected demands on equipment, new equipment delays, and funding shortfalls. It is unknown how many strike fighters deployed on the Nimitz, Ronald Reagan, and Theodore Roosevelt are combat capable.