By Masako Iijima
April 13, 2003
ABOARD USS CARL VINSON, Western Pacific, April 13 (Reuters) - More than a hundred times a day, fighter jets catapult with a mighty roar from this aircraft carrier, deployed to keep an eye on secretive North Korea and its suspected nuclear ambitions.
"What we're doing here is providing strategic deterrence. You don't have to drop a bomb to make a point," said 31-year-old Lieutenant Chad Gerber.
"Nations that are considered a threat know what kind of training we have and that's what keeps the stability," added the F/A-18C "Hornet" pilot, who dropped bombs on Afghanistan a year and a half ago in operation "Enduring Freedom".
The world's attention may be on Iraq, but the crew of the USS Carl Vinson plying the waters around Japan and the Korean peninsula to fill in for the USS Kitty Hawk, now deployed to the Gulf, are preparing for the day they may be called into action.
The presence of the floating, nuclear-propelled warplane airport, a squad of B-52 and B-1 bombers which has been deployed to Guam, and several F-117A "Stealth" fighters on assignment in South Korea, are all part of a U.S. effort to remind Pyongyang that Iraq is not the only concern on its security radar.
Tensions on the divided peninsula rose last year, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear arms programme in violation of a 1994 pact.
The crisis escalated after North Korea restarted a mothballed nuclear facility capable of making weapons-grade plutonium, test-fired missiles and intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft patrolling international airspace.
SAME ROUTINE, DIFFERENT WORRIES
The five-vessel Carl Vinson battle group launched some of the first Tomahawk missiles into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and about 60 percent of the 5,200 crew members currently on board the aircraft carrier took part in that military operation.
They may be veterans, but the 18 pilots on board still practice dropping cement-filled bombs each day.
Mechanics work round the clock to repair damaged aircraft in the hangar under the airstrip where planes land with a thud, sending shudders through a vessel as tall as a six-storey building.
"Anyone with a desire to hurt someone is dangerous regardless of what fire power they may have," said Lt Aaron Parks, another veteran "Hornet" pilot.
"Brush off that threat and you are in a dangerous situation."
The battle group has just completed a month of war games with South Korea's military. Troops from the two countries, backed by warships and planes, practiced massive amphibious landings.
The annual "Foal Eagle" exercise sparked criticism from Pyongyang, which described the large-scale training as a rehearsal for a nuclear attack.
U.S. officials said North Korea test-fired a surface-to-ship missile of its own on April 1. Pyongyang has also used its official media to remind Tokyo that Japan is within range of North Korean military might.
"North Korea has the equipment to do more damage (than Iraq), they could get us if they tried. But we are ready for that, that is what we train for, that is why we are here," said Chief Petty Officer Mitch Palmer, part of an aircraft maintenance crew.
TONNES OF DETERRENCE
Efforts to break the deadlock between the United States and North Korea have so far failed.
Pyongyang insists on bilateral talks with Washington to solve the crisis, but the United States wants a multilateral forum that would include countries such as South Korea and Japan.
The United States has some 100,000 troops stationed in Asia with most of them in countries neighbouring North Korea.
About 37,000 of the region's U.S. military personnel are based in South Korea while Japan, which relies on the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" for a security deterrent, hosts around 48,000.
With the Carl Vinson forward deployed, if worse came to worst, the United States would be capable of striking North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyong or any other target.
"The carrier can go a long way in a short time and the aircraft on board can go a fair distance, so for us to go 500, 600, 700 km (435 miles) is certainly a do-able effort, if we wanted," said Rear Admiral Evan Chanik.
But for the time being, the mission of the battle group is to monitor and prepare, not to provoke.
Said Captain Brian Neunaber, the "Airboss", who coordinates the jets, tanking aircraft and helicopters taking off and landing on the flight deck: "If parking an aircraft carrier off the coast of someone's country helps regional security, that is what we do."