It’s not the diplomacy-minded former president who is ready to spy, it’s the secretive nuclear submarine named for him. The surveillance and attack capabilities it’s supposed to have could keep the tense situation on the Korean peninsula from spiraling out of control.
In the wake of yesterday’s North Korean artillery barrage against a South Korean island, the U.S.S. George Washington is sailing to South Korea to participate in joint exercises.
A statement from the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which patrols the western Pacific, says the drill was planned before the “unprovoked” North Korean attack, but will demonstrate “the strength of the [South Korea]-U.S. Alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence.” In other words: to stave off another attack, not to initiate a retaliation.
The George Washington aircraft carrier is equipped with 75 planes and around 6,000 sailors. But it’s not coming alone. It’s got the destroyers Lassen, Stethem and Fitzgerald with it, and the missile cruiser Cowpens in tow. Rumor also has it that the carrier strike group will link up with another asset in area: The undersea spy known as the Jimmy Carter, which can monitor and potentially thwart North Korean subs that might shadow the American-South Korea exercises.
According to plugged-in naval blogger Raymond Pritchett, word’s going around Navy circles that the first surveillance assets that the United States had in the air over yesterday’s Korean island battle were drones launched from the Jimmy Carter.
“North Korea couldn’t detect the USS Jimmy Carter short of using a minefield, even if they used every sonar in their entire inventory,” Galrahn writes. That’ll matter in case North Korea decides to launch another torpedo attack from a submarine, as it did in March to sink the South Korean corvette Cheonan.
The Navy doesn’t say much about what the Jimmy Carter can do, but the consensus is that it’s used for “highly classified missions.” Reportedly, it can tap undersea fiber-optic cables, potentially intercepting North Korean commands.
It carries Navy SEALs to slip into enemy ports undetected. And its class of subs have 26-and-a-half-inch-diameter torpedo tubes, wider than the rest of the submarine fleet, in case the Carter has to take out rival ships. “That’s a Seawolf, the most powerful attack sub in the world,” says Robert Farley, a maritime and international-relations scholar at the University of Kentucky.
All that might be intended to keep the North Koreans from trying something during the exercises, scheduled to run from December 3 through 10. As bellicose as they’ve been this year, they’d be up against a carrier strike group on the lookout for North Korean aggression.
The North’s 10 Yeono-class midget submarines — tiny subs with a crew of only a few sailors designed mostly for firing torpedoes — is “only mildly more capable than the submarines the Nazis were using in 1945,” Farley says, but “if there’s a nervous or adventurous North Korean sub skipper out there, we could have a real problem.”
The real role of the George Washington’s carrier strike group is floating diplomacy and deterrence, signaling “the close security cooperation between our two countries, and to underscore the strength of our Alliance and commitment to peace and security in the region,” as the White House’s account of a phone call between the U.S. and South Korean presidents last night put it.
And the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s influential NightWatch newsletter doubts that North Korea is really preparing for war: It doesn’t appear to have issued new military alerts, and it’s competing in the Chinese-sponsored Asian Games.
But should its submarines get ready to harass the United States during next month’s exercises, chances are the Jimmy Carter will see it first.
By Spencer Ackerman