YOKOSUKA, Japan -- In case the message was not clear enough, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made sure there was no misunderstanding. Aboard the U.S. Navy's sole forward-based aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, on Wednesday morning, Pence warned North Korea not to test U.S. President Donald Trump's resolve and said the "sword stands ready."
At Yokosuka Naval Base, about 70km from Tokyo, roughly 2,500 American troops from the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army gathered on the deck of the carrier, a place usually reserved for F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft operations. Some 100 members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force also attended the event.
"Storm clouds gather on the horizon," Pence said regarding the tension with Pyongyang. "North Korea is the most dangerous and urgent threat to the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific." He said that while the U.S. will work diligently to find a diplomatic way of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, he reiterated that all options are on the table. "Under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready," he said. "The U.S. will be stronger than ever before. When America is strong, the world is safe."
But threats from politicians are not always what they seem. Earlier in April, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that the carrier USS Carl Vinson -- which was visiting Singapore at the time -- was to cancel port visits to Australia and head north to the western Pacific. The timing of the announcement, just after a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, gave the impression that the carrier was preparing for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. Trump fanned the flames by saying, "We're sending an armada," on Fox News. Military analysts calculated that the carrier, together with its escort of two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser, could have arrived near the Korean Peninsula as early as April 15.
There was confusion, understandably, when the Navy released photos of the Carl Vinson, on April 15, sailing through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian Islands of Java and Sumatra, which was in the opposite direction from North Korea. The Carl Vinson was indeed heading to the western Pacific, but not in such a rush as Trump administration officials had portrayed it.
Yokosuka is the U.S.'s largest overseas naval installation, and the most important strategic hub for the Navy in the western Pacific. With the Ronald Reagan at its core, the U.S. 7th Fleet has a dozen warships permanently deployed to the base.
Its importance comes from its geographic location. A carrier strike group could reach the waters near North Korea from Yokosuka weeks earlier than it could from ports in the U.S. The carrier is capable of sending 90 aircraft to attack the enemy, with enough firepower to destroy entire cities multiple times over. A F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter can accelerate from zero to 200kph in just two seconds.
Pence's appearance on the ship signals that alongside the Carl Vinson, the U.S. could send the Ronald Reagan, and possibly the USS Nimitz -- currently completing final-stage deployment qualifications off the coast of California -- to the region to project further determination and power. But once again, the symbolism does not match the reality of multiple carriers rushing to the seas off North Korea.
The Reagan is currently undergoing a four-month scheduled maintenance at the docks of Yokosuka and will only be ready next month. The 100 pilots of the Reagan's air wing must first conduct 4,200 touch-and-go landing practices on the island of Iwo Jima before being qualified to head out to sea.
The Ronald Reagan is the fifth U.S. carrier to be permanently based in Japan, following the USS Midway, USS Independence, USS Kitty Hawk and USS George Washington. "The steel deck (of the carrier) signifies the ironclad alliance our country enjoys with Japan and our enduring commitment to the Asia-Pacific," Pence said.
The sheer size of the aircraft carrier is overwhelming. From end to end, the 333-meter vessel is as long as the Tokyo Tower is high. The ship serves 18,000 meals a day, including 205 loaves of bread, 100 dozen eggs and 250 gallons of milk. It has five dentists, five physicians, three chaplains and five gyms.