Trump retweeted a message from U.S. Pacific Command that said supersonic B-1B bombers on Guam were “ready to fulfill USFK’s mission if called upon to do so.”
That message, including the dramatic hashtag, may sound ominous to the uninitiated. But combined with comments Thursday from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and decades of history between North Korea and the United States, it suggests that while the present situation between Pyongyang and Washington is quite serious, Pacific Command is more signaling its readiness to fight if need be than spoiling for a battle within days.
The Air Force has kept bombers on Guam for years, and the Pentagon and U.S. Forces Korea — the USFK referenced in Pacific Command’s tweet — have long used the “fight tonight” motto in South Korea to reflect the seriousness of their mission. More than 29,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, and at least 28,500 have been there each year since an armistice agreement put a halt to fighting in the Korean War in 1953.
Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush — who included North Korea with Iran and Iraq in his “Axis of Evil” — also both used the “fight tonight” phrase while discussing North Korea.
“Our forces on duty here — American and Korean — are highly trained, closely coordinated, fit to fight tonight and every other night,” Obama said during a visit to U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul in 2014.
“Our citizens are safer because you’re ready to fight tonight,” Bush told troops during a visit to Osan, South Korea, in 2005. “You’re serving the cause of liberty on distant frontiers, and I bring a message from home: Your commander in chief is proud of you, and so are the American people.”
Trump’s actions Friday morning came after Mattis again tamped down talk of war during an appearance Thursday. The Pentagon chief, asked about Trump threatening “fire and fury” against North Korea and what the death toll in a nuclear confrontation could look like, answered carefully.
“What I would say here, ladies and gentlemen,” Mattis responded, before stopping for a full five seconds to collect his thoughts. “My portfolio, my mission, my responsibilities is to have military options should they be needed.”
But the Pentagon chief quickly added that the American effort against North Korea was diplomatically led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and gaining diplomatic traction and results.
“I want to stay right there right now,” Mattis said. “The tragedy of war is well enough known. It doesn’t need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”
Pacific Command highlighting the readiness of the B-1B bomber also could be an attempt to signal North Korea. The aircraft, officially called the “Lancer” but nicknamed the “Bone” by its crews, has long been a workhorse in America’s air wars, but is not able to carry nuclear weapons. It once was, but the Air Force eliminated that option over the course of several years ending in 2011 as part of the New START treaty with Russia, which reduced the number of nuclear bombs both countries possess.
An Air Force news release included in Pacific Command’s tweet notes that two bombers from Ellsworth Air Force base, S.D., recently arrived in Guam, but are part of a continuous mission that dates back years. The Air Force will continue to launch bomber flights, known as sorties, “to demonstrate the continued U.S. commitment to stability and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” according to the Air Force. The service added that doing so is “an important part of national defense” during a time of high regional tension.
A variety of other forces remain within reach of the Korean peninsula, probably including Navy submarines carrying nuclear missiles whose locations are kept secret. The top U.S. officer in Japan, Lt. Gen. Jerry P. Martinez, also released a statement Thursday that underscored combined U.S. and Japanese efforts to protect Japan, a potential target of North Korea, and explained why the Pentagon must continue flying missions despite a recent MV-22 Osprey aircraft crash off the coast of Australia.
“There are clear threats to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region,” Martinez said. “Our forces stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners in the Japan Self Defense Forces to defend Japan and contribute to regional security. We take that responsibility with utmost seriousness. To that end, we must maintain the highest levels of readiness to respond at a moment’s notice to any regional threat, crisis, or humanitarian disaster. To do any less would be to abdicate our responsibility to the people and government of Japan.”