The Carl Vinson Strike Group with South Korean vessels (source: US Pacific Fleet)
Indeed, North Koreans see the US-ROK exercises as anything but routine; to the contrary, there was a sense among them that the Pentagon has launched the contact reconnaissance phase of a military operation it is planning to undertake on the peninsula. They noted that the geographical features of the Korean Peninsula provide no opportunity for the gradual, methodical buildup of troops to create a superior strike force—as was the case before the US attacked Iraq—and that North Korea would immediately notice such actions and naturally regard them as a casus belli. In their eyes, the Pentagon is rehearsing elements of a coordinated military operation one step at a time. The three aircraft carrier strike groups that are operating in Korea’s East Sea, as well as many other operations, were not just a show of force.
The same is true, they argued, about the latest US-South Korean air exercise Vigilant Ace, which involved 230 aircraft and a large number of varied types of stealth aircraft. The deployment for the first time of so many stealth airplanes looks especially ominous from the North Korean perspective against the backdrop of recent US-ROK exercises practicing decapitation strikes against Kim Jong Un in a first strike using ground, naval, air and special operations forces. These, and many other new elements that have appeared in drills over the past several months, have elicited growing concern that different elements of a combined arms operation against North Korea are being methodically rehearsed and that “zero hour,” as they put it, is not too far away.
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