In a congressional hearing Wednesday, commander of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris said that the carrier USS Carl Vinson is finally "in striking range . . . of North Korea, if called upon to do that." Harris did not give away the Vinson’s position, but he said that she was in the Philippine Sea, about two hours' flight time away from North Korea – a distance of roughly 600 to 800 nm for an F/A-18 at cruising speed.
The Vinson's itinerary in the Western Pacific region was the subject of considerable controversy last week when a Navy photo showed the carrier in the Sunda Strait, 3,000 nm away from North Korea. Top officials had suggested she would be diverted to the Sea of Japan as a show of force, raising widespread concerns at home and abroad over increasing signs of tension between the U.S. and North Korea. Most media reports suggested that Vinson was due to arrive off the Korean Peninsula within days, but instead the carrier sailed in the other direction, heading south to participate in a series of exercises in the Indian Ocean.
In recent interviews, sources within the White House and the Defense Department blamed an ill-timed, vague press release and a partially incorrect announcement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis for the confusion: the Vinson had always planned to sail south first, and her new orders simply shortened her trip by canceling a series of port calls. On Wednesday, Adm. Harris claimed full responsibility for the public relations mix-up. "That's my fault for the confusion," he said. "Where I failed was to communicate that adequately to the press and the media . . . That is all on me."
The Vinson and her carrier strike group are not the only allied naval assets now within range of the Korean Peninsula. The destroyer Wayne E. Mercer has begun exercises with a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea, and the destroyer Fitzgerald is conducting drills with a Japanese destroyer in the Sea of Japan. Additionally, the Ohio-class guided missile submarine Michigan is docked at Busan, putting her 100-plus cruise missiles within range of North Korea.
North Korea stages massive live-fire exercise
On Tuesday, North Korea staged what may have been its largest live-fire exercise ever, with 300 self-propelled artillery pieces gathered along the coast of the Wonsan region. According to a readout from KCNA state media, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un personally gave the order to open fire. KCNA asserted that "the largest-ever combined fire demonstration . . . was the humblest reverence for President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il," the first two leaders in the dictatorship's hereditary line.
The North's weapons programs could eventually give the "hermit kingdom" the ability to threaten the U.S. mainland with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, a development that American diplomats have worked to prevent for decades. However, as demonstrated this week, the DPRK's conventional artillery already poses a problem for military planners: at the outset of a conflict, Seoul and its populous suburbs would be within range.