After having initially been delayed by technical problems, the USS Ronald Reagan has joined the Carl Vinson off the Korean peninsula for military drills, including drilling with the ROK navy. The drills include anti-DPRK commando strikes, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft operations, and strikes with air-launched and submarine-launched cruise missiles.
It had been no secret that the USS Michigan — one of the US’s four SSGN guided-missile submarines – was at the Korean peninsula, having very publicly docked at Busan, ROK. What wasn’t known until Trump’s loose lips leaked it was that there is another (presumably SSGN) submarine off of Korea. This would presumably be the USS Ohio, and would mean that the entire Pacific SSGN fleet is off the coast of the DPRK. Each SSGN carries 154 tomahawk missiles. One can presume that there are also a significant number of Los Angeles class subs (up to 37 tomahawks each, 36 submarines in service), Seawolf class subs (up to 50 tomahawks each, 3 submarines in service) and Virginia-class subs (up to 37 tomahawks each, 13 submarines in service) operating in the Western Pacific which would also take part.
Of course, there’s even more firepower in the two carrier strike groups present. But will two become three? It was announced this week that rather than heading to the Middle East, the USS Nimitz and its strike group will be deployed to the Western Pacific. The Nimitz is due to leave port on Thursday. It is not entirely clear at present whether the Nimitz will relieve the Carl Vinson or join it and the Reagan for drills.
Adding in air power stationed in Japan, there is now a tremendous amount of firepower which can be directed at the DPRK. To put it into perspective:
* The war in Afghanistan was launched with three carrier strike groups.
* The second Iraq War was launched with four carrier strike groups.
* The first Iraq War was launched with five carrier strike groups.
At the same time as the US is increasing its firepower that can be directed at the DPRK, it is focusing on defense. The US this week announced plans to perform another test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD). What Patriot is to short range threats and THAAD is to intermediary threats, GMD is to long-range (intercontinental) threats. Unlike the former two, however, GMD has a spotty record, only having hit half of its test targets thusfar. The current problematic interceptor is planned to be replaced by a more advanced Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) in 2020, with the first test in 2019.
There have been no reports of unusual increases of US ground forces or armour in the ROK, although both the US and ROK have been doing extensive drilling. It also seems unlikely that Moon Jae-In, South Korea’s new, moderately dovish prime minister, would allow an invasion by ground forces into the DPRK — even though it would help secure the ROK against counterstrikes via pushing DPRK artillery out of range and pushing back DPRK commandos from being able to reach their infiltration tunnel entrances. It seems more likely that, if US strikes are being planned, that they would be kept brief, while the ROK strategy would be to make clear that they are not supporting the attacks, and to reiterate their counterstrike policy. This would leave the DPRK with a decision to either 1) focus any counterattacks solely on US assets (if they can actually find and hit anything), with the ROK sitting the conflict out; or to 2) punitively strike or invade the ROK, leading to what would certainly ultimately lead to the overthrow of Kim Jong Un’s regime after a long and bloody battle.
Full disclosure: I have no crystal ball. I’m just watching events unfold, just like everyone else.