President Trump’s “locked and loaded” remark on Friday — part of his ongoing exchange with the North Korean regime — might have set the world more on edge. But if the U.S. military is preparing for a major conflict, there is little evidence of it.
As of Friday morning, no U.S. aircraft carrier was on patrol in the Asia-Pacific region. The USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan have both returned to their respective home ports, San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan.
The USS Nimitz Strike Group — often on station in the western Pacific — is deployed to the Persian Gulf, supporting the U.S.-led effort against ISIS.
There are about 29,000 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea. Annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises begin Aug. 21 but are conducted primarily with forces already in place.
And U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday appeared to downplay the possibility of armed conflict.
“My mission, my responsibility is to have military options if you need it,” Mattis said. “However, right now, Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson, Ambassador [to the U.N. Nikki] Haley, you can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results.”
Mattis pointed to last weekend’s unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions on North Korea as a sign of robust diplomatic activity.
Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in Asia-Pacific security issues, says the U.S. day-to-day military capabilities in the western Pacific are “very imposing, very impressive.”
Pollack says they are intended “to deter the North from any kind of potential actions. But if the North were to act, the U.S … would have to deploy far more to the peninsula and the region as quickly as possible.”
And he points to another sign that the U.S. is not moving toward war with North Korea: There have been no efforts to evacuate the at least 150,000 U.S. citizens living in South Korea.
“That would be the clearest indication that we were headed toward war,” Pollack says. “And I don’t think we are.”