Littoral combat ship to debut at South Korea military drills

by Rosalind Mathieson
Bloomberg News

SINGAPORE — The U.S. Navy will send its new combat ship tailored for Asia's shallow coastal waters to join military drills with South Korea that North Korea calls a prelude for invasion.

Carrying a helicopter, a vertical takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle, a 57 millimeter gun and 21 missiles, the USS Fort Worth will become the first littoral combat ship to take part in the annual Foal Eagle exercises starting next month off the coast of South Korea.

"The specific role that Fort Worth will play in Foal Eagle is really no different than any other Navy ship has for years," Rear Adm. Charles Williams told reporters Tuesday in Singapore on board Fort Worth. "Fort Worth's role will be just a normal part of that exercise," said Williams, who is Logistics Group Western Pacific Commander.

The 389-foot littoral combat ship — the second to have been deployed to the region — will operate in Asia for 16 months, primarily in Southeast Asia, within the 7th Fleet. In North Asia, the ship will make port visits in Japan, a U.S. ally immersed in a territorial spat with China. Williams said the littoral combat ship could also operate in South Asia.

North Korea demands the United States and South Korea end the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises held early each year in order to improve ties on the peninsula. The regime considers the drills preparations for war and routinely threatens to retaliate with nuclear force if its territory is violated during the exercises that the U.S. and South Korea say are defensive in nature.

"I really am not in a position to even postulate on what they may or may not do," Cmdr. Matthew Kawas, Fort Worth's commanding officer, said when asked whether the ship's presence could risk inflaming tensions with North Korea. "We are looking to normalize having an LCS out here and send the LCS all over to start participating in exercises and make it more routine."

"We are able to operate a bit closer to shore, and we do have more speed than some of the other ships," Kawas said. "It's just something we're going to be actually exploring during the exercise and see what additional features we can bring."

North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the state-run Rodong Sinmun on Feb. 12 that South Korea was raising tensions to an "extreme level" by planning the drills with the U.S. It said North Korea would use its "small, precise and diversified" nuclear arms in a "decisive battle" on the U.S. mainland.

"We do not hesitate to hide our intention to make South Korea our target in retaliation if the war-mongering South Korean fanatics volunteer to be consumed by artillery in the invasive war by the U.S.," said the committee, which handles relations with South Korea.

"This can be seen as a warning," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said by text message. "North Korea will react more violently and firmly and escalate military tensions drastically once the U.S.-South Korean drills begin."

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Feb. 7 it test-fired an "ultra-precision anti-ship rocket" from a naval boat in a drill overseen by leader Kim Jong Un. A day later, it launched five short-range missiles into the waters off the east coast. Each missile flew about 124 miles, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry.

North Korea routinely test-fires short-range missiles to enhance their range and precision. Kim has overseen a series of military drills in the past month, according to the country's official media.

Lessons learned from the earlier deployment of the littoral combat ship USS Freedom in Southeast Asia have been "numerous," Williams said. "The reliability of the ship has already been improved," he said. Soon after its arrival in Singapore, Fort Worth took part in the search for a crashed AirAsia passenger plane off the coast of Indonesia.

U.S. Navy officers in the Pacific fleet have raised concerns that littoral combat ships may lack the speed, range and electronic-warfare capabilities to operate in the vast Asian waters. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. would protect East China Sea islands administered by Japan that are claimed by China and has reaffirmed defense treaty obligations with the Philippines, embroiled in a dispute with China in the South China Sea.

The Chinese Navy last year commissioned nine new Jiangdao-class corvettes armed with anti-ship cruise missiles for operations close to shore, "especially in the South China Sea and East China Sea," the Pentagon said Jan. 5 in its annual report on China. China's military is improving its military doctrine, training, weapons and surveillance to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against the U.S. and other adversaries, it said in the report.

"I don't think of it as the shadow of China in the region," Williams said. "I think of China as another Asia-Pacific nation that operates throughout the region, just as we do."

— With assistance from Sam Kim in Seoul.

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