US displays its military might

Jet landing on USS George Washington
Image caption Some 200 aircraft and 8,000 personnel are involved in the exercises

There are probably not many more effective statements of military might than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

The USS George Washington is one of the biggest warships in the world, made from 60,000 tons of steel and capable of carrying more than 6,000 crew members.

Just a few minutes spent on the flight deck is a demonstration of formidable, awesome power.

The double ear protection provided does not stop the feeling of the noise rumbling and resonating in the pit of your stomach, as the F-18 fighter planes are catapulted into flight.

That said, the participation of this ship in a joint naval exercise with South Korea off the coast of the peninsular is, in fact, not at all remarkable.

The two navies regularly train together and aircraft carriers, including the George Washington, have taken part in these kinds of drill before.

We have caught glimpses of some of the 20 or so other ships involved, sometimes up close, at other times far away on the horizon.

It is certainly a large exercise but the scale is not unprecedented.

There must then be other reasons why it seems to have taken on a special significance and attracted the attention of the world's media, a number of whom, like the BBC, have sent reporters for an up-close look at what is going on.

The first reason, of course, is timing.

'Sacred war'

Exercise Invincible Spirit, as it is being called, was in the planning before a multi-national investigation team blamed North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan.

Image caption The officers of USS George Washington stress the war games are routine

Since then, Seoul and Washington's attempts to get the international community to agree to punish Pyongyang have been somewhat frustrated, in particular by Beijing.

So there is, perhaps, an advantage in presenting the exercise itself as a form of physical response and to claim that it is sending a strong "message of deterrence".

Not that it does not have real strategic value for the allied fleet, allowing it, for example, to conduct anti-submarine drills, one area where North Korea's threat is now thought to be all too real.

The second reason for the heightened sense of drama is North Korea's reaction to these exercises.

It has been the familiar, colourful language, warning of "a sacred retaliatory war" and the danger of "waking a sleeping tiger".

Many observers will dismiss such words as empty rhetoric, although China, for one, appears concerned about the risks that large-scale military drills may pose to regional stability.

It has been reluctant to punish North Korea, now and in the past, out of a fear of unpredictable consequences if the isolated, authoritarian state is pushed too hard.

But here is another bit of logic brought into sharp focus by the American and South Korean navies' show of strength.

North Korea is unlikely to risk a conflict it knows it would lose.

Security threat?

So perhaps both sides are in danger of overstating their cases.

In fact, they might both have an interest in doing so.

The exercises are certainly of strategic importance to Washington and Seoul, and they will unsettle Pyongyang.

But the George Washington's senior officers have been keen to stress that the drills are largely routine.

They seem unlikely to terrify Pyongyang's hardliners into a less belligerent position, in fact it may galvanise them.

And what of North Korea's claim that this is "gun boat diplomacy", and a threat to its security?

Of course the gathering of such a significant naval force from countries deemed hostile may unsettle its military elite.

But the ships are in international waters well south of the maritime demarcation line between the two Koreas.

It is hardly something that North Korea would want to go to war over, unless it is one of words.