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Behind the Scenes / U.S. aircraft carrier pressuring North Korea

By Tatsuya Fukumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan on the Sea of Japan is crowded with shipborne aircraft.

By Tatsuya Fukumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAs tensions persist on the Korean Peninsula, I had the chance to board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (see below), which participated in recent joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises.

During my visit, I saw the reality of the security environment in which the United States may resort to force to stop reckless actions from North Korea, which refuses to end its nuclear and missile development.

As long as Tokyo Tower

While riding in a dimly lit C-2 transport aircraft, a crew member in the front row suddenly began waving his right hand in circles, signalling that we would soon land on the carrier.

The aircraft landed shortly after, coming to a jarring, abrupt stop, as if my body were being forced back. An enormous flight deck and vast ocean came into view as I stepped outside. The ship — which at 333 meters is about as long as Tokyo Tower is tall — overwhelmed me with its size.

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  • By Tatsuya Fukumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

    An F/A-18 Super Hornet multirole fighter takes off with a thunderous roar on the Sea of Japan.

  • By Tatsuya Fukumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The air boss directs flights from the bridge.

  • By Tatsuya Fukumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Officers use aircraft models arranged on a table resembling an aircraft carrier to control deck operations.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

The U.S. Navy invited reporters from The Yomiuri Shimbun and other media outlets to the aircraft carrier to observe exercises conducted on Oct. 19 in the Sea of Japan. The press corps was flown out to the warship from the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwakuni Air Station in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. During the landing, our plane was hooked to the deck by a wire to minimize our landing distance, which caused the sudden jolt.

We were led inside for instructions and asked to wear helmets, noise-cancelling earmuffs and goggles to protect our eardrums, eyes and heads from the tremendous noise, wind pressure and heat on deck.

We then moved to the center of the deck in the vicinity of the bow. A crew member instructed us not to cross a line.

Around us, shipborne planes were busily taking off. The main attraction was the F/A-18 Super Hornet multirole fighter, equipped with precision-guided weapons. With the help of a catapult, it can accelerate to 280 kph in only two to three seconds over a distance of 60 meters, departing the deck with a thunderous roar. I felt a series of jolts as the F/A-18s took off in succession from the carrier’s three on-deck runways. The smell of jet fuel lingered in the hot air.

An EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft also appeared. This plane features radar-jamming capabilities, and would likely be used to suppress enemy counterattacks in the initial response phase should contingencies arise.

Mix of new, old methods

On the ship’s bridge, a crew member called the air boss, who directs the takeoffs and landings of the carrier’s 66 aircraft, issued instructions over the radio as he closely monitored flight activities.

In another room, I saw a double-layered table called the “ouija board,” constructed to resemble the carrier, on which tiny color-coded model aircraft are moved like pieces on a chess board. On one occasion, I observed the officers checking aircraft movements to and from the hangar bay. These men still use old-school methods, even surrounded by high-tech equipment.

“We have 87 flights scheduled for takeoff today,” an officer noted. “When it’s busy, we have about 100 a day.”

A person connected to the Self-Defense Forces explained: “The takeoff and landing procedures for U.S. carrier aircraft are extremely complex. China is still probably at least 10 years away from acquiring the same level of expertise.”

From the ship’s bridge, I saw what looked like the silhouette of a large island on the port-side horizon. The U.S. military does not usually reveal the precise deployment locations of its aircraft carriers. Naturally, an accompanying sailor only identified the island as “South Korea.” When asked for its exact location, he said he could not answer that.

Ready to handle ‘any provocation’

In the joint exercises held for five days beginning Oct. 16, about 40 U.S. and South Korean warships were deployed to the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea, as if to sandwich North Korea. The U.S. side explained the drills included ground attacks, repelling enemy forces at sea, and surveillance. They were described as preplanned exercises which had been on the schedule for quite a while.

But there is no question that their intent was to send a message to North Korea.

The USS Ronald Reagan is the flagship of the U.S. 7th Fleet’s Carrier Strike Group Five.

During missions, it sails with a fleet of ships including destroyers, a nuclear submarine and supply vessels. Regarded as a “moving air base,” aircraft carriers of such stature can be incredibly daunting alongside nuclear submarines and bombers.

“Do you see this [drill] as sending a message to the North Korean regime?”

When asked this question by the press corps on board, Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, the group commander, responded emphatically: “I think that the message that operations and exercises with the Republic of Korea [South Korea] send is the enduring relationship that we have, and the strategic alliance that we have with the Republic of Korea that emphasizes our ability to be ready to respond to any provocation.”

Like South Korea, Japan also maintains a robust alliance with the United States. Last month, the Self-Defense Forces held joint exercises with the U.S. military in the Pacific around Okinawa Prefecture, and in airspace just outside the Kyushu region.

North Korea is expected to continue its nuclear tests and test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. U.S. President Donald Trump is in the midst of his first trip to Asia, including stops in Japan and South Korea, to promote the policy of “peace through strength” championed by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War.

Further coordination between Japan, the United States and South Korea is indispensable to strengthening deterrence against North Korean aggression.

■ USS Ronald Reagan

A U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a full load displacement of 97,000 tons, named after the 40th president of the United States. It can carry 66 shipborne aircraft, including 44 multirole fighters. It is powered by two nuclear reactors and has a crew of approximately 5,000. Its home port is Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture.Speech

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