Zig-zagging through blue-green waters, this Nimitz-class carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, simulates wartime off the coast of Korea.
Jets, mainly F-18s, shake the ship 120 times a day, catapulting from zero to 300 mph in seconds. Pilots with call-signs like "Piglet" and "Monkey" say that carrying live ordinance rather than empty "blue tubes" sharpens them. But as veterans who flew the first sorties to Afghanistan, most wish they were with friends now, above the skies of Baghdad.
Still, the crew knows a nuclear crisis with North Korea ups the ante of this annual exercise, called "Foal Eagle." Carriers, as one Pacific commander puts it, represent "95,000 tons of diplomacy." The Pentagon sent the Vinson to Japan in the weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il kicked out UN nuclear inspectors. Usually the USS Kitty Hawk plies these waters, but it was deployed to the Middle East in October 2001. The Vinson will stay in the region after the exercises end, officers here say.
North Korea announced Tuesday that Washington is using Kim Jong Il's nuclear program as a pretext to invade the North and create a "second Iraqi crisis." Without further explanation, an editorial in the North Korean paper Minju Joson stated the North will "increase its national defense power on its own without the slightest vacillation no matter what others may say...." Tomorrow, Japan is expected to launch two satellites that will aim radar and optical lenses at North Korea. US diplomats in Japan say Pyongyang may respond by test launching a long-distance multistage rocket. North Korean rhetoric regarding Japan reached a new level Wednesday when the North Korean news agency stated that Japan would face "self-destruction if it pursues a pro-US policy."
So the No. 1 on this boat, Rear Adm. Evan Chanik, treads a fine line with reporters. He doesn't want to exaggerate the meaning of a scheduled exercise that North Korea depicts as a prelude to war. But when pressed, Admiral Chanik also doesn't want to suggest there is no larger meaning or context.
"An exercise is an exercise is an exercise. But we maintain a great awareness of the real world," says Chanik, a lanky and relaxed former naval aviator. "We look at potential threats and think about what our reactions might be. What we've done, though, is explain this is a standard exercise, despite what you hear from North Korea."
"We aren't thinking of this as a dress rehearsal for war," says Lt. Art Pinks, who e-mails his wife regularly about his 2-month-old daughter, Emma, whom he hasn't seen yet. "But if it comes, it comes. We train 365 days a year to drop bombs. We are ready."
Tensions are increasing on the Peninsula - largely due to rumor and speculation. Tuesday, following a series of violent clashes between students and police, the National Assembly in Seoul agreed to postpone a vote over whether to send 700 promised noncombatant troops to the Gulf. US military estimates in the mid-1990s suggest that, in the event of war on the Peninsula, more than a million people could lose their lives, including as many as 90,000 Americans. The issue is one of survival, Koreans say.
Such tensions seem far removed from this carrier. Above an observation deck known as "vulture's row," daylight operations are literally overseen by the "Air Boss" and his assistant, "Mini Boss," Cmdr. Matt Scassero. They can see 10 miles in all directions. In a cubby hole behind the Mini Boss, two sailors watch the NCAA championship on TV, not the ongoing Iraq war. "They've got their priorities straight," says an officer, smiling. "We are on break," one sailor says.
Commander Scassero offers a familiar refrain on Iraq: "I wish we'd finished it last time." But then he turns to mediate what aircraft will land first. Out on the windy flight deck, the support crew, sometimes called "gear dogs," line the runway, where every landing is akin to a 3.5 ton "controlled crash." This is the most dangerous part of the ship. The faces on the flight deck aren't very cheerful. They are extremely diligent.