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Friday, September 30, 2011     GET REAL

China not happy, but USS George Washington stands guard off Korea

By Donald Kirk

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, South Korea — Moored at the huge commercial port of Pusan, this behemoth of a nuclear-powered warship reminds friends and foes alike of the massive strength of United States forces in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.


Nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington.     / Fremantle Por
“We do exercises all the time,” said Rear Admiral J R Haley, welcoming visitors at the opening of a four-day port call. “Over the last six months, we’ve done six or seven.”

That proud revelation raises the question of what this 97,000-tonne vessel, with its complement of 60 or so aircraft, playing war games with other American and South Korean ships, can really do about off-and-on confrontation in northeast Asia.

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Since the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March last year, and then the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea last November, American and South Korean forces have been wary of arousing the wrath of the Chinese. For their part, China no doubt sees the presence of this ship as a clear threat but seems to have toned down the shrill denunciations that accompanied every report of its forays into the Yellow Sea.

For a time, in fact, the Americans stayed away from the Yellow Sea, in the face of a blitzkrieg of Chinese rhetoric, preferring instead to conduct exercises on this side of the peninsula, in the East Sea, aka the Sea of Japan. Now, the Americans like to say the George Washington can go anywhere — though just how close it’s likely to get to the Chinese or North Korean coasts is not revealed.

What’s for sure, however, is that, even as the U.S. and South Korea engage in sporadic talks with the North Koreans, in what would appear as a respite from the crises of last year, their sheer military strength is steadily increasing regardless of what they’re likely or ready to do with it.

“Together we have a more substantial force when we encounter more threats,” said Haley. “We definitely are better prepared with the exercises we have done, the integration we have done.”

Haley gives an impression of overall escalation on all sides even as officials and diplomats talk about talks and North Korea seems less inclined this year than last to go to the brink of the dreaded Second Korean War.

“The threat we faced 10 years ago was less than the threat we face now,” he said, “but our capabilities are better” — as seen in the upgrading of U.S. and South Korean forces and also in plans by the South Koreans for new naval bases on strategic islands off the south and east coasts. “We are strong together. Because of the unity of our effort, we are confident of our ability to counter the threat.”

But what kind of threat — and what can this monster of a ship do about infiltration or a submarine strike against a much lesser target or about shelling as the North Koreans have promised to do if South Korean loudspeakers blare out propaganda across the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas?

Standing on the flight deck against a background of F-18 fighter planes, you don’t sense an answer to such questions.

“Our mission is to insure security and stability in the western Pacific,” says the ship’s public affairs officer, Lieutenant Commander Dave Hecht. “It’s not unusual to launch 100 aircraft a day” — but what they’re all doing about whatever the North Koreans are up to is far from clear.

What does seem clear, though, is the commitment to improved defenses on the assumption that the North Koreans, after going through the cycle of diplomacy and talks about talks, will undoubtedly be looking for weaknesses to penetrate the armor surrounding the South.

Against such a contingency, South Korea’s latest plan calls for a new base on an island named Ulleung out there in the East Sea off the central South Korean coast. The South Koreans are now saying they’re planning to spend upwards of $300 million on building a “military port” there that’s capable of harboring a new destroyer with an Aegis-class missile and radar system, about the latest and greatest advance in naval warfare.

Somewhat portentously, the destroyer is named Dokdo, from the name of the twin rocky islets, still further out in the East Sea, that the Koreans hold with a police garrison in defiance of Japanese claims that their proper name is “Takeshima” and they’re really Japanese property.

The construction of the base on Ulleung would definitely leave the American in a quandary since the base would have more to do with defending Dokdo against Japanese incursions than against the North Koreans. The dispute between South Korea and Japan over Dokdo leaves the Americans more or less muzzled, if not speechless, considering that this carrier’s home port is Yokosuka, Japan, and its air wing, when not on the ship, flies out of the nearby base of Atsugi.

The Americans probably feel more comfortable about construction of a major new South Korean base on the southern coast of Jeju, the island province south of the Korean peninsula. The obvious purpose of that base is to fend off any North Korean ships that might be wending their way southward.

The possibility of North Korean submarines or patrol boats getting that far south, of course, is never out of the question considering that South Korea, during the period of the “Sunshine policy” of reconciliation, did permit the North Koreans to ply the waters between Jeju and the South Korean mainland on their way around the Korean Peninsula. How else, after all, can North Korea ship stuff by sea from one side to the other without going around the South?

Now, however, South Korea says the base is needed in the wake of last year’s episodes in the Yellow Sea that cost 50 lives, including 46 sailors killed in the attack on the Cheonan. Lately, however, authorities have had to deal with demonstrators whose sometimes violent protests have significantly delayed base construction.

The South’s defense ministry accuses activists of spreading falsehoods, including the claim that U.S. warships will use the base. Both South Korean and American officials say there’s no such plan.

Rather, say the South Koreans, the base will serve a dual purpose as a port for huge international cruise ships, bringing in still more revenue for an island whose principle business is tourism. While activists are a pain to the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, officials note the original plan was authorized under Lee’s left-leaning predecessor, the late Roh Moo-hyun.

On the flight deck of the George Washington, such controversy seems enormously irrelevant. The 5,500 aboard the ship, men and women, sailors and aircraft crews, are clearly proud of their jobs, needed or not needed, effective or not.

“It’s a piece of cake,” said Emily Cestari, an F-18 mechanic, posing thumbs-up in the cockpit of her plane, about the most fearsome in the navy’s inventory, with her name and rank, Aviation Machinist’s Mate, ADAN Cesrtari, is painted on the side.

Lest life on long cruises get a little boring, sailors said they get to play soccer and touch football on the flight and hangar decks, and they all have e-mail addresses and access to the ship’s 1,000 or so computers. “But you can’t send just anything,” said one sailor. “They read your messages.”

Nor is alcohol easily available — “They let us have a beer after 45 days at sea,” said one.

Whatever, while cruising aboard this mighty vessel in a time of tension, real war is far from hell — or even much on anyone’s mind.

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