The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its most powerful submarines to South Korea in a naked display of military might. The USS Michigan’s arrival significantly escalates the Trump administration’s confrontation with North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program.
Michigan pulled into Busan, a large port city in southern South Korea, on Tuesday for what the Navy described as “a routine visit during a regularly scheduled deployment to the Western Pacific.” But the sub’s arrival in South Korea is no coincidence.
An Ohio-class guided-missile submarine, the 560-foot-long Michigan carries as many as 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles plus a mini-sub for transporting Navy SEAL commando teams ashore.
To put that into perspective, Trump’s April 6 missile strike on Syria’s Sharyat air base—retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons—involved just 59 Tomahawks.
Michigan possesses “unprecedented strike and special-operation mission capabilities from a stealthy, clandestine platform,” according to the Navy.
The Navy has just four guided-missile submarines, only one or two of which are normally available for combat. Sending Michigan to South Korea is big deal. That the Navy announced the sub’s arrival in an official press release is equally significant—the sailing branch doesn’t normally comment on the comings and goings of its elusive submarines.
“The beauty of submarine operations is that only our team knows where they are, and that keeps the enemy guessing,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told The Daily Beast.
In other words, the Trump administration wanted the Michigan to be on hand as the crisis on the Korean Peninsula worsens. And it wanted Pyongyang, and the world, to know that Michigan was hanging around.
“By announcing her presence in the region, our government is likely sending a message of strength, which when combined with the other military assets in the region is probably aimed at both our potential adversary and our allies as a demonstration of American resolve,” Wertheim said.
North Korea, which already possesses a small number of atomic warheads, tested an apparently nuclear-capable ballistic missile on April 15. “The missile blew up almost immediately,” the U.S. Defense Department noted.
But the test failure hasn’t defused tensions. Having declared in mid-March that America’s “policy of strategic patience” with North Korea “has ended,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled Wednesday, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, to brief the U.S. Senate on President Donald Trump’s plan to deal with North Korea.
The Trump administration is apparently trying to achieve decisive results on the Korean Peninsula before South Korea’s May 9 election. Voters will elect a successor to former President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in early March amid corruption allegations and a bizarre scandal involving a shamanistic cult.
The frontrunners for the next president are all left-leaning and have advocated a softer approach to Pyongyang.
In other words, if Trump plans to pre-emptively attack North Korea—an act that, to be clear, could plunge the world into wide-ranging, catastrophic warfare—then he probably needs to do so before May 9. After that date, South Korea could become a far less hospitable place for the Michigan and the thousands of U.S. troops who are permanently based in the country.
For their part, South Koreans are unimpressed by the Michigan’s visit and Trump’s saber-rattling. The submarine’s arrival is “minor news on the website of one of the more hawkish dailies,” Robert Kelly, a professor at Busan National University—yes, that Robert Kelly—told The Daily Beast.
“It has been made reference to on TV,” Kelly said of the submarine. “But not that much.”
Despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric and Michigan’s high-profile deployment, South Koreans don’t expect war between the United States and North Korea, Kelly said. South Koreans “have been living with this threat for a long time. They are pretty sanguine about it.”
If Trump does choose to strike North Korea, Michigan would probably need help. The submarine’s Tomahawk cruise missiles could inflict heavy damage on North Korean airfields and any exposed military installations. But Pyongyang has concealed many of its most important facilities, including nuclear sites, in tunnels hundreds of feet underground.
To destroy those, the U.S. Air Force developed the world’s biggest non-nuclear bomb.