WASHINGTON – Two Japanese destroyers joined up with the Carl Vinson carrier strike group in the Philippine Sea Sunday for renewed bilateral exercises, the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet announced. The Vinson is headed north for the Sea of Japan in an expression of U.S. resolve as North Korea continues to develop offensive ballistic missiles with nuclear capability.

The Vinson, with the cruiser Lake Champlain and destroyer Michael Murphy, was joined June 22 by the Ashigara and Samidare of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, Seventh Fleet said in a press release. The Ashigara, like the U.S. escort ships, is equipped with the Aegis combat system.

Seventh Fleet, in the release, said the joining of forces was a "routine exercise designed to improve combined maritime response and defense capabilities, increase combined maneuvering proficiency, and ensure maritime forces remain ready to defend the region when called upon."

It's the fourth time since deploying from San Diego on January 5 that the Vinson has operated with Japanese ships. The carrier most recently exercised with Japanese warships in late March, also in the Philippine Sea, just after concluding three weeks of exercises with South Korean forces during Exercise Foal Eagle.

U.S. Pacific Command announced April 8 the Vinson, which had been in Singapore, would cancel a planned port visit in Australia and return to Korean waters. The strike group carried out abbreviated exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast and by April 15 was headed north, passing through the Sunda Strait between the big Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra.

The decision to send the strike group back to Korean waters was made by Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command. The move, PACOM spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham said April 8, was "a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific.

"The number one threat in the region," Benham said April 8, "continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible, and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."

Confusion arose around the world when, on April 17, Defense News reported the ship had passed through the Sunda Strait, when there had been widespread media speculation the strike group was already nearing Korea. U.S. authorities insist they never issued a timeline for the movements and that there was no deliberate intention to mislead the public.

Harris will be in Washington this week for a round of leadership meetings. He is to appear Wednesday morning before the House Armed Services Committee and Thursday morning at the Senate Armed Services Committee to brief Congress on the military situation in the western Pacific. 

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