By Lolita Baldor / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A rare military exercise involving three of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups is being planned for next month in the Asia Pacific, a U.S. official said Thursday. The likely exercise would happen around the same time that President Donald Trump is traveling to the region, including visits to South Korea and China.
During a Pentagon briefing Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, raised the prospect of the three carriers operating together at some point, but he provided no details. A U.S. official confirmed the plans for an exercise, but wasn’t able to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Three Navy aircraft carriers and the ships that accompany them are currently thousands of miles apart in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. But they are moving through the region and could be closer together in weeks.
The exercise plan has not been publicly announced, and officials would not say exactly where or when it would take place.
McKenzie said the last time three carriers operated together was in 2007. At that time, it was for a naval exercise off Guam.
“We always seek to do that when we have an opportunity to do it. It doesn’t come along very often,” McKenzie said, when asked about the presence of three carriers in the Navy’s 7th Fleet region, which surrounds Asia. “It does demonstrate a unique and powerful capability that has a very significant assurance effect on our allies in the western Pacific.”
The U.S. has been moving to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, in an effort to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
And the Trump administration has made it clear that the U.S. is prepared to take military action if the North does not halt its development of missiles that could strike the U.S, potentially with a nuclear warhead.
A carrier strike group is a powerful symbol of U.S. military might. It can include as many as six to 10 ships, including carriers, destroyers and other support ships. Those ships can carry up to 7,500 personnel and an air wing of dozens of fighter jets and other aircraft.
It’s not unusual for two or even three carriers to be in the 7th Fleet region at the same time, because they often overlap as they move to and from the Persian Gulf.
The USS Ronald Reagan strike group is deployed to the region and has been operating there. The USS Nimitz has been deployed to the Gulf, and is returning home to the West Coast, while the USS Theodore Roosevelt left its home port on the West Coast earlier this month and is on its way to the Gulf.
The Navy’s Pacific Fleet, in a statement, would only say that carrier strike groups “routinely deploy to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These deployments are part of a previously planned deployment cycle and it is not uncommon for incoming and outgoing carrier strike group transit timing to overlap as one begins a deployment the other concludes.”