TOKYO — The U.S. and Japan are ramping up military exercises aimed to intimidate North Korea and prepare for the possibility of conflict as tensions mount, including by flying nuclear-capable bombers through nearby airspace.
The countries’ alliance was on full display Nov. 12, when three U.S. aircraft carriers and three Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ships held joint exercises in the Sea of Japan. The fleet was joined by American missile destroyers bearing the Aegis anti-missile system and a number of cruisers. Together, these vessels practiced maneuvers designed to protect the aircraft carriers from submarines that might threaten them.
The exercises underscore “the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” said Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, head of the Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff. They were also the first to bring three U.S. aircraft carriers and Japanese vessels together in the Sea of Japan.
If that many carriers “are positioned in waters off the Korean Peninsula, it is possible to launch an all-out attack on North Korea at any time,” a Japanese government source said. Showing off U.S.-Japan strike power aims to discourage provocations such as nuclear and missile tests by the North, making the exercises part of so-called flexible deterrent options the allies are pursuing under revised Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation introduced in 2015.
The U.S. also flew two B-52 strategic bombers, which can be equipped with nuclear weapons, over the Sea of Japan on Aug. 22 in concert with F-15 fighters from the Air Self-Defense Force. These were the first joint exercises involving B-52s to be made public. The two partners also discussed including B-2 stealth bombers in an SDF fleet review planned for the end of October that was canceled due to bad weather.
This deterrence strategy may be yielding results: North Korea has not launched a missile since Sept. 15. But few within the Japanese government believe Pyongyang will abandon its nuclear weapons program so easily, leaving military action on the Korean Peninsula within the realm of possibility.