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The USS Ronald Reagan passes through waters near Okinawa on its way to train with South Korea's navy. (Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate)   © Reuters
Politics

US gathers fleet at North Korea's doorstep ahead of Trump tour

Troop count to double as president visits Asia

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asian Review chief desk editor | North Korea

TOKYO -- Already at each other's throats, the U.S. and North Korea could see tensions escalate even further when U.S. President Donald Trump embarks on a visit to Asia early next month.

The U.S. Navy is gathering its fleet at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's doorstep to coincide with the commander in chief's tour, which will start in Hawaii on Nov. 3 before moving on to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines through Nov. 14.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier based in San Diego, will soon pass through Asian waters with four escort ships -- the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, and the guided missile destroyers USS Halsey, USS Sampson and USS Preble. The vessels are headed to the Middle East, where they are to replace the USS Nimitz and its strike group.

The Roosevelt departed San Diego on Oct. 6 and, according to Stratfor's U.S. Naval Update Map, is currently around Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is headquartered. The pace of the voyage suggests the ships will be in the western Pacific around the time Trump arrives in Tokyo or Seoul. 

The Roosevelt's strike group consists of approximately 7,500 sailors and Marines. Combined with the USS Ronald Reagan's strike group -- based in Yokosuka, Japan, as the Navy's sole forward-deployed carrier group -- some 15,000 American navy personnel will be on ships in the region. 

The two carrier groups are expected to conduct joint exercises while the Roosevelt is in Asia.

Staff describe conditions on the Reagan flight deck as "organized chaos." (Photo by Ken Moriyasu)

"Organized chaos"

Ahead of the crucial week, the U.S. Navy invited the Nikkei Asian Review and other media aboard the Reagan on Thursday, during a four-day joint exercise with the South Korean navy. The Reagan is conducting drills with the missile destroyers USS Stethem, USS Mustin and USS Chafee.

When this reporter arrived on the carrier via a C2 Greyhound cargo aircraft from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, in Japan's Yamaguchi Prefecture, some 34 planes were on the deck preparing for takeoff and landing practice. Another 32 were jampacked in the hangers below.

In a notable difference from previous media tours, the F/A-18 Super Hornets had live ammunition affixed to their wings.

Close to 300 support personnel -- wearing uniforms color-coded to their roles -- hurried around the deck as the jet fighters prepared for launch. The red firefighters, the purple fuel staff, the green maintenance experts and the yellow directors all scurried off the runway as the engines roared.

An F/A18 Super Hornet prepares for launch on the Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Ken Moriyasu)

Going from zero to 200kph in 2 seconds, the Super Hornets need just 60 meters of runway to take off. Close to 90 sorties were carried out on Thursday, slightly fewer than usual.

"This is organized chaos, with no room for errors," said Terrance Flournoy, the "handler" on the Reagan. Peering out of windows embedded in the flight deck, the handler arranges scale-model aircraft on a table, simulating conditions up top to ensure all planes are in the right place.

The commanding officer of the Reagan, Capt. Buzz Donnelly, explained that the ship was east of the Korean Peninsula, roughly 160km from the coast of South Korea. "Typically, an aircraft can fly 600 miles (965km) from the carrier," he said. "We have the ability to reach throughout the Korean Peninsula from the position we are operating in."

With the North Korean threat looming over the 5,000 sailors on board, the Reagan may remain in the waters off South Korea for weeks after the joint exercise wraps up.

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