ABOARD USS GEORGE WASHINGTON — U.S. and South Korean warships and helicopters practiced antisubmarine maneuvers off the Korean peninsula today, readying defenses against the kind of weapon that allegedly sank a South Korean navy vessel earlier this year.
The destruction of the Cheonan in March, which has been blamed on North Korean torpedo, killed 46 sailors in the worst military disaster for the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The four-day "Invincible Spirit" exercises involving 20 ships, 200 aircraft and about 8,000 U.S. and South Korean sailors are being held in response to the sinking, bringing threats of retaliation from North Korea, which denies responsibility for the attack.
The antisubmarine phase of the training — which also involves antiship and antiaircraft operations — is particularly important because an international investigation found that the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo launched from a North Korean submarine that somehow penetrated South Korea's defenses.
"I am concerned about every submarine underwater that I don't know about," said Capt. David Lausman, the commanding officer of the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered supercarrier deployed to the maneuvers from its home port in Japan.
The exercises are the first to employ the F-22 stealth fighter — which can evade North Korean air defenses — in South Korea.
North Korea has strongly protested the exercises, saying they are a provocation and threatening retaliation. In flourishes of rhetoric typical of the regime, it vowed to respond with a "sacred war" and a "powerful nuclear deterrence."
South Korea's Defense Ministry said it had not observed any significant moves by the North Korean military since the maneuvers began Sunday.
U.S. officials say that the maneuvers, held well away from North Korea's border, are not intended to provoke a response, but add that they do want to send North Korea a message that further aggression in the region will not be tolerated and that the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea remains strong.