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Navy shows off its airpower during rare tri-carrier drills near Korean Peninsula

The Navy put its airpower on display as a rare three-aircraft carrier exercise entered its final stretch Monday in waters east of the Korean Peninsula.

The four-day drills, which kicked off on Saturday, involve the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz, and are aimed at demonstrating the Navy’s “unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups as a coordinated strike force effort,” the service said last week.

The exercise — which is happening as President Donald Trump wraps up his lengthy tour of five Asian nations — includes air-defense drills, sea surveillance, defensive air combat training and close-in coordinated maneuvers.

The Nimitz’ flight deck was a hive of activity Monday as crewmembers readied steam catapults that would send 23-ton F/A-18E and 18F Super Hornets soaring skyward.

Moments later, the hook-runners would ready the arresting cable to catch another jet in the “controlled crash” of a carrier landing.

Elsewhere on the flight deck — and in hangars below — ground crewmen readied aircraft that would soon take to the skies above the sea to engage in mock dogfights, while others inspected jets that had recently landed.

“This is a unique opportunity. It’s rare that you can aggregate a force the way we did here,” Rear Adm. Greg Harris, commander of the Nimitz strike group, told Stars and Stripes Monday from a hangar aboard the carrier. His group includes the Nimitz, Carrier Air Wing 11, Destroyer Squadron 9, and several other support ships.

The air wing has flown an average of 80 sorties per day since Saturday, said its commander, Capt. Mike Spencer. The Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan strike groups have flown a similar number.

The last tri-carrier drills took place in 2007 off the coast of Guam during exercise Valiant Shield. The Navy has in recent years conducted dual-carrier operations in the South China, East China and Philippine seas.

Navy officials told Stars and Stripes the drills are not part of a planned multinational exercise, although imagery released Sunday shows Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the South Korean warships sailing in formation alongside U.S. vessels.

The Japanese destroyers JS Inazuma, JS Makimise and JS Ise conducted a drill alongside the three carriers to “improve tactics and skills” and “strengthen cooperation” with the Navy,” said a JMSDF statement issued Sunday.

Seven South Korean vessels, including two destroyers, trained alongside the carriers for the “purpose of coping with [North Korean] provocations and threats,” said a statement issued Monday by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The drills will “restrain [North Korea] from doing nuclear and missile provocations,” it added.

Navy officials told Stars and Stripes last week the exercise “is just another example of the service’s regular and routine presence” in the region and is not directed at Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The communist state has test-fired dozens of ballistic missiles in recent months and conducted its sixth and most powerful underground nuclear blast on Sept. 3. However, Pyongyang has been unusually quiet since a Hwasong-12 missile launched on Sept. 15 flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

Trump has warned that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and has threated to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it continues to threaten the United States.

Aboard his carrier on Monday, the Nimitz strike group commander suggested the exercise was aimed at reassuring America’s allies in the tension-filled region.

“We want to very clearly show our allies and partners, ‘We have been here for 70 years for you, and we are going to be here for 70 more,’” Harris said.

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