ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN-- Leading the largest demonstration of U.S. military power near North Korea in recent years, the USS Ronald Reagan's message was clear: We are bulky but nimble.
A dozen F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet multi-role combat jets and EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft took off from the biggest U.S. warship forward-deployed in Asia back-to-back and landed back on it after brief sorties over the East Sea.
At hand signals from "shooters," clad in yellow jerseys, planes roared into the air about every 60 seconds.
An E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft also returned to the vessel for recovery in front of a few pool reporters invited to experience the special air show featuring high-tech catapult and arresting-gear systems.
Other visitors included Marc Knapper, acting American ambassador to Seoul; British Ambassador Charles John Hay; South Korean Marine Corps Commandant Lt. Gen Jun Jin-goo; and Lee Sang-chul, the first deputy director of the presidential National Security Office.
The Reagan, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet's Carrier Strike Group 5, was conducting a combined exercise with two other supercarriers -- the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt -- in the Korea Theater of Operations (KTO) and was also joined by South Korea's naval ships.
"There's an advantage to operate together, in that combined three carriers really create a tremendous amount of combat power very flexible and create a lot of options for our national leadership," Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of the Reagan strike unit, said in an interview at the ship's "flag bridge," which commands a view of the whole flight deck.
He would not reveal the exact location of the carrier.
According to an informed source, it was transiting the waters 50 nautical miles, or 92 kilometers, south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de-facto inter-Korean sea border, and 40 nautical miles north of Ulleung Island.
It's unusual for the Japan-based carrier to sail so close to the NLL. It's unprecedented for the South's Navy to train with three U.S. flattops at the same time.
The last time three U.S. carriers were mobilized for joint drills in the Western Pacific was in 2007 near Guam.
The current training is apparently a warning message to the North's Kim Jong-un regime and a way to put pressure on it.
After a two-month pause in the unpredictable communist nation's strategic provocation, a local soldier, shot and wounded by his fellow troops, defected to the South through the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Monday. The South has raised its combat alert level in case of an emergency.
On his visit to Seoul last week, President Donald Trump publicly mentioned the three carriers operating in the region. He said, "We hope to God we never have to use (them)."
Dalton, however, said the four-day practice, which will continue through Tuesday, is no typical war game.
"We are not simulating anything other than training on how the three carriers operate together," he said. "This exercise is not based on a scenario of any type."
The aim of the drills is to practice how the three air wings and the ships of the strike groups operate together, jointly using the sea and air space in the region in a synchronized way without interfering with each other, he added.
The Reagan has operated in the Western Pacific since 2015 and the two others were transiting the Pacific Ocean for the change of tasks. This offered an opportunity for the unscheduled tri-carrier maneuver, said Dalton.
Asked about why the Nimitz and the Roosevelt were not to be seen around the Reagan, Dalton explained, "We don't operate right next to each other most of the time." In order to operate nearly 70 aircraft, he pointed out, a fair amount of air and sea space is needed and the carriers want to be able to distribute their combat power over a wide area.
A day earlier, the three carriers steamed in formation in the KTO, followed by several South Korean naval ships, for official photos released to the press.
The 97,000-ton Reagan, homeported in Yokosuka, boasts a flight deck the size of three football fields.
It's not an easy task to coordinate the sophisticated departure and arrival of multiple jets in short intervals. A total of 67 aircraft are on board the carrier, including 56 fixed wing craft and 11 choppers.
"It's a complete teamwork," said Lt. Cdr. Terrance Flournoy, who was on handler duty for the visiting journalists, as he demonstrated the "Ouija board" in the ship's flight deck control center.
He described the flight deck as "one of the most dangerous areas in the world," citing safety concerns. Then the reporters were escorted to the deck, with float coats and helmets on.
Sailors repeatedly shouted, "Stay behind the designated lines." A sense of tension was palpable among both the novices on the carrier and the veteran sailors.
Reporters and dignitaries flew back to Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, on a C-2 Greyhound jet with 26 seats. It took about an hour. In the flight safety briefing, a U.S. instructor said the Greyhound is one of the U.S. Navy's oldest but most reliable planes.
Source: Yonhap News Agency