Special Report: Pentagon’s latest salvo against China’s growing might – Cold War bombers

By David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – On July 21, two U.S Air Force B-1B bombers took off from Guam and headed west over the Pacific Ocean to the hotly contested South China Sea. The sleek jets made a low-level pass over the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escorting fleet, which was exercising nearby in the Philippines Sea, according to images released by the U.S. military.

The operation was part of the Trump administration’s intensifying challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party and its sweeping territorial claims over one of the world’s most important strategic waterways. While senior Trump officials launch diplomatic and rhetorical broadsides at Beijing, the U.S. Defense Department is turning to the firepower of its heavily armed, long-range bombers as it seeks to counter Beijing’s bid to control the seas off the Chinese coast.

Since late January, American B-1B and B-52 bombers, usually operating in pairs, have flown about 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, according to accounts of these flights from U.S. Air Force statements and official social media posts. These missions, military analysts say, are designed to send a crystal-clear signal: The United States can threaten China’s fleet and Chinese land targets at any time, from distant bases, without having to move America’s aircraft carriers and other expensive surface warships within range of Beijing’s massive arsenal of missiles.

In this response to the growing power of China’s military, the Pentagon has combined some of its oldest weapons with some of its newest: Cold War-era bombers and cutting-edge, stealthy missiles. The supersonic B1-B first entered service in 1986; the newest plane in the B-52 fleet was built during the Kennedy administration. But these workhorses can carry a huge payload of precision weapons. A B-1B can carry 24 of the U.S. military’s stealthy new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which entered service in 2018 and can strike targets at ranges of up to 600 kilometers, according to U.S. and other Western officials.

“A single B-1 can deliver the same ordnance payload as an entire carrier battle group in a day,” said David Deptula, dean of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General. And, in a crisis, he added, bombers can be rapidly deployed.

“Depending on where they are, ships can take weeks to get in place,” said Deptula. “But by using bombers, they can respond in a matter of hours,” he adds, noting that the U.S. object is to deter war. “Nobody wants to engage in conflict with China.”

Chinese and western military strategists warn that a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could be difficult to contain.

In a clash with China, this fast response from the bomber force could be vital while the U.S. and its allies rush naval reinforcements to the Pacific to bolster the vastly outnumbered U.S. naval fleet stationed in the region, according to current and former U.S. and other Western military officers.

A spokeswoman for Pacific Air Forces, Captain Veronica Perez, said the U.S. Air Force had increased its publicity about its bomber missions to assure allies and partners of Washington’s commitment to global security, regional stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific. “Though the frequency and scope of our operations vary based on the current operating environment, the U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

China’s defense ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

LOWEST POINT

While the bomber missions continue, relations between Washington and Beijing have reached their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In a show of force, Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait while U.S. Secretary for Health, Alex Azar, was visiting Taipei on Aug. 10 to congratulate the government of President Tsai Ing-wen on its successful containment of the COVID-19 virus. Azar was the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades.

Taiwan’s missile radars tracked the Chinese fighters in only the third such incursion across the median line since 2016, the Taiwanese government said. Beijing condemned the visit. It regards the island as a province of China and hasn’t ruled out the use of force to bring it under Communist Party control.

In a series of speeches ahead of Azar’s visit, top Trump officials had hammered China on multiple fronts, including its military build-up, territorial ambitions, domestic political repression, intellectual property theft, espionage, trade practices and its failure to alert the world to the danger of COVID-19.

In one of the most harshly worded attacks on China from an American official in decades, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 23 that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was not a normal fighting force.

“Its purpose is to uphold the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party elites and expand a Chinese empire, not protect the Chinese people,” he said. “And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait as well.” In July, Pompeo declared most of Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea illegal.

With the combination of bombers and long-range missiles, the United States is trying to turn the tables on the PLA. Over more than two decades, China has assembled a force of ground, sea and air-launched missiles that would make it deadly for warships of the U.S. Navy and its allies to approach the Chinese coast in a conflict. This Chinese strategy is specifically tailored to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and the network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia.

In a demonstration of this capability, the PLA launched one of its so-called carrier-killer missiles, the DF-26, in an exercise in the South China Sea following the deployment in July of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the area, China’s official military media reported in early August. And a U.S. defense official told Reuters that on Aug. 26, China launched four medium-range ballistic missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.

But the PLA Navy’s huge and rapidly expanding fleet is also vulnerable to long-range missiles. China has built the world’s biggest navy, including new aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and powerful cruisers and destroyers. And the PLA’s extensive network of bases and ports would also be targets for missiles.

In a conflict, U.S. bombers over the Western Pacific could target PLA Navy warships at their bases on the Chinese coast or underway inside the so-called first island chain, the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. Chinese warships would be even more vulnerable if they broke out through the island chain into the Western Pacific, outside the coverage of the PLA’s land-based air defenses and strike aircraft.

THE FIREPOWER GAP

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Washington assumed it had uncontested control of the oceans and neglected to arm its surface fleet with modern, long-range anti-ship missiles. To be sure, the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan, still have a powerful fleet of attack submarines that would pose a deadly menace to PLA warships. But the bombers help fill the firepower gap in the U.S. surface fleet while the Pentagon is re-purposing existing missiles and introducing new versions to its destroyers and cruisers, according to maritime strategists.

The bomber deployments are one element of a much wider reshaping of forces and tactics that the U.S. and its allies in East Asia have launched to deter China from attacking Taiwan, expanding its hold over the South China Sea or seizing other disputed territories. These include the uninhabited group of isles in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, which are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.

Tensions are on the rise around these islands, now under Japanese control. The commander of U.S. forces in Japan, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, pledged in July that America would help Japan monitor “unprecedented” Chinese incursions into waters around the Senkakus that were challenging Tokyo’s administration. Within an hour of Schneider’s comments, China’s foreign ministry fired back that the islands were “Chinese territory.”

Long-range U.S. bombers operating from distant airfields would remain a threat if Chinese missile attacks disabled key U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. These bases, mostly a carry-over from World War Two and the Korean War, were built at a time when China had very limited means to attack them.

Now it does. In a clear acknowledgement that Guam is now at risk, the U.S. Air Force announced on April 17 it would end its continuous rotation of bombers to the island base and withdraw them to the U.S. mainland.

The absence of a permanent bomber presence at Guam is a blow to Washington’s ability to deter China and North Korea, air power experts say. The island in the Western Pacific is less than a five-hour flight from the South China Sea.

“It makes it look like the Chinese military build-up has worked,” said Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University in Australia and a retired Australian air force Group Captain who has worked at the Pentagon. “They are now taken out of range.”

Since then, the United States has sent bombers to Guam for short-term deployments from their continental bases. U.S. air power researchers suggest that the availability of better training facilities at mainland U.S. bases was also a factor in the decision to withdraw the bombers. But in further evidence of Guam’s vulnerability, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has asked Congress to fund a powerful missile defense system for the island by 2026.

Another hurdle for the Pentagon: America’s bomber force is shrinking just as the PLA challenge grows. From a force of more than 400 at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk to 158 aircraft. Of those planes, 62 are B-1Bs and 76 are B-52S. The United States also has a smaller force of 20 newer B-2 stealth bombers.

The air force plans to retire 17 B-1Bs next year to concentrate resources on the remaining bombers until the planned introduction of a new generation of stealthy bomber, the B-21, toward the end of this decade. This bomber is expected to sharply improve the U.S. Air Force’s ability to penetrate Chinese airspace. Northrop Grumman is now building the first prototype, according to air force officials.

‘NOT LIKE FIGHTING SADDAM’

As the risk of conflict rises, some Western air power experts doubt that U.S. bombers would deliver a decisive advantage in a clash with the PLA. They say the Chinese military has spent decades preparing formidable, integrated air defenses. Even if the U.S. bombers were able to sink PLA Navy warships and stealthily penetrate Chinese airspace to strike some ground targets, they say it would not necessarily translate into victory against a vast and powerful adversary.

And, they warn, it might be impossible to fight a limited conflict on China’s periphery. “It is not like fighting Saddam Hussein, it would be a major world war,” said Layton, the retired Australian air force officer. “Both sides have nuclear weapons and there is the potential for escalation. If either side is losing, what is going to happen then?”

Alongside relying on its bombers, the United States has been forced to develop other plans to offset the Chinese missile and naval threat. The U.S Marine Corps is planning to disperse smaller units armed with long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles through the first island chain, where they could threaten the Chinese navy and land targets on China’s mainland.

The U.S. Army also intends to spread forces through the first island chain and other outposts in the Western Pacific. It is planning a series of major exercises this year and next where troops would deploy to islands in the region, according to senior commanders and top Pentagon officials.

New weapons are in the pipeline that would give specially formed army task force units the firepower to strike at Chinese warships and other targets in a conflict. The U.S. Army’s top commander, General James McConville, told an online seminar hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in late July that a very long-range hyper sonic missile was under development and tests had been successful. And soldiers would have the tools to attack an enemy’s navy. “We are going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships,” McConville said.

The U.S. and its allies also intend to link all their surveillance systems and weapons together in a regional network so that tracking information about a target could be shared between radar stations, satellites, surface warships, submarines, aircraft and land forces. In this system, a stealth fighter flying from a carrier could detect an enemy warship and relay this information to an army unit on an island, which could attack the foe with an anti-ship missile.

On May 21, two U.S. B-1B bombers from Guam flew to an area near Misawa Air Base in Japan, where they conducted long-range anti-ship missile training with a P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, according to a U.S. Pacific Air Force statement. This exercise demonstrated that the U.S. had the capability to “hold any target at risk, anytime and anywhere,” said Perez, the Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman.

The ships and aircraft involved in this exercise likely practiced the sharing of target information to mount a simulated attack, according to U.S. and Asian military experts. On other missions this year, the American bombers have held joint exercises with U.S., Japanese and South Korean fighters.

CHINESE AIRSPACE

In this networked battlefield, the Pentagon’s old warhorses of the air would be an even more formidable rival.

The speed and range of America’s Cold War-vintage bombers would allow them to approach Chinese targets from different directions and fire salvos of difficult-to-detect missiles at multiple ships, according to current and retired U.S. air force officers. With even longer range missiles that Washington has in the pipeline, such attacks could be mounted from well outside the range of China’s powerful, land-based air defenses. American bombers can also drop precision-guided mines to block strategically important ocean passages or ports.

And the U.S. B-2 stealth bombers could penetrate more deeply into Chinese airspace and attack key targets with sharply less chance of detection than the older bombers. These bombers already carry a heavy payload of precision, land-attack munitions and could also be configured to carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile.

A B-1B could take off from the continental United States, refuel from tanker aircraft en route, and arrive over the Western Pacific in about 15 hours, according to Deptula and other military aviation analysts. From Hawaii the trip would take about nine hours, they say. Even closer, from northern Australia, the transit would take six hours without refueling.

The Australian government announced in February it would spend $814 million upgrading a key air base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, including a major extension to its runway. Part of the reason for the upgrade is to support expanded U.S. Air Force operations, the Australian government said. American bombers are already using the base.

The B-1B originally served as a nuclear bomber. That role has been phased out. It now carries around 34 metric tonnes (75,000 pounds) of conventional guided and unguided weapons, the biggest payload of any U.S. aircraft. In the military operations launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, these bombers were flown hard for almost two decades to provide ground support to American and allied troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

With the Pentagon having turned its competitive sights on China, the B-1B is now increasingly employed as a ship killer. In future, it could also be armed with a new hyper sonic missile, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), now in testing, and a new long-range cruise missile, according to senior U.S. Air Force commanders. Hyper sonic missiles traveling at more than five times the speed of sound would be hard to intercept.

The B-52 is an even older icon of American might, in service since the mid-1950’s. It carries a slightly smaller payload than the B-1B. As part of this weapons load, it can be armed with up to 14 upgraded versions of the Cold War-era Harpoon anti-ship missile. And, it could also be configured in future to carry 20 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, according to air power experts. Along with the B-2, the B-52 can also launch nuclear missiles.

While these older bombers remain potent, American air power experts say a strong force of B-21 stealth bombers will be much more effective when they begin entering service later this decade. The new bomber is being developed in a highly classified program. “All the indications are that it is proceeding well in the development phases,” said Deptula.

(Reporting by David Lague in Hong Kong. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

Egyptian security forces kill 12 suspected militants after bus bombing

FILE PHOTO: A damaged bus is seen at the site of a blast near a new museum being built close to the Giza pyramids in Cairo, Egypt, May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh/File Photo

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian security forces have killed 12 suspected Islamist militants in Cairo, the Interior Ministry said on Monday, a day after an explosion targeting a tourist bus injured at least 12 people.

A rudimentary device containing nails and pieces of metal detonated on the perimeter of the Grand Egyptian Museum near a bus carrying 25 South African tourists from the airport to the pyramids district.

The Interior Ministry did not say whether the suspected militants were connected to Sunday’s attack, but said its forces killed the suspects during raids on their hideouts in the 6th of October and Al Shorouk districts, where it said members of the militant group Hasm were planning a series of attacks in the country to create an “atmosphere of chaos.”

Egypt accuses the group, which emerged in 2016 and has claimed several attacks, of being a wing of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement denies this and says it seeks change through peaceful means only.

The ministry said the suspects were killed in gunbattles but did not elaborate on the suspects’ identity or whether there had been any casualties or injuries among the security forces.

Weapons and explosives were found at the scene of the shootouts, the ministry said.

A Reuters investigation in April found that Egyptian security forces had shot dead hundreds of suspected militants in what the Interior Ministry said were gunbattles, but which bereaved families said were extrajudicial executions.

A Reuters analysis of the ministry statements showed that deadly shootouts often followed an attack by militants. For example, in December 2018, a day after the deadly bombing of a Vietnamese tourist bus in Giza, the ministry announced that its forces had killed 40 people in three separate incidents.

Human rights organizations have accused Egypt of carrying out extrajudicial executions and of trying civilians in military courts as part of the crackdown.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that the matter of human rights should be treated in the context of regional turbulence and the struggle against terrorism. Strong security measures, he has said, are needed to stabilize Egypt after the turmoil that followed the country’s 2011 uprising.

Egypt’s military and police launched a major campaign against militant groups in 2018, focusing on the Sinai Peninsula as well as southern areas and the border with Libya.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelati and Haitham Ahmed; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Amina Ismail and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. sending carrier, bombers to Mideast is “psychological warfare”: Iran

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s top security body dismissed as “psychological warfare” a U.S. announcement that a carrier strike group and bombers are being sent to the Middle East as a message to Tehran, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Tuesday.

Tensions rose on the eve of the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Tehran is likely to revive part of its halted nuclear program on Wednesday in response to the U.S. move but does not plan to pull out of the agreement itself, state media said.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the United States was deploying the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in a warning over alleged threats by Iranian forces.

“Bolton’s statement is a clumsy use of a burnt-out happening for (the purpose of) psychological warfare,” Tasnim quoted Keyvan Khosravi, spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council, as saying. Khosravi said the carrier had arrived in the Mediterranean weeks ago.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Monday he had approved dispatching the carrier strike group and bombers due to indications of a “credible threat by Iranian regime forces”. He gave no details of underlying intelligence.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter: “If U.S. and clients don’t feel safe, it’s because they’re despised by the people of the region – blaming Iran won’t reverse that.”

Iran’s state-run Press TV earlier said: “The deployment seems to be a ‘regularly scheduled’ one by the U.S. Navy, and Bolton has just tried to talk it up.”

JITTERS

Separately, a military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted that the United States was “neither willing nor capable” of military action against Iran, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

Brigadier General Hossein Dehgan said Washington would have a hard time convincing world opinion and regional countries to accept an all-out war against Iran, and to mobilize resources for such a conflict.

Iranian newspapers and commentators have dismissed Washington’s announcement as a “bluff” and “empty rhetoric”.

However, as jitters over the war of words rose, Iran’s rial currency extended its fall on Tuesday, hovering around a seven-month low against the U.S. dollar on the unofficial market, foreign exchange websites reported.

The rial declined to 154,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, compared to 150,500 rials on Monday, touching its lowest value since early October 2018, according to Bonbast.com.

Last week, President Donald Trump’s administration said it would end waivers for countries buying Iranian oil in an attempt to reduce Iran’s crude exports to zero following Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

The administration also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran said last month it was prepared for a U.S. decision to end the waivers as the Revolutionary Guards repeated a threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if Tehran were barred from using it.

Around 30 percent of the world’s seaborne oil exports is shipped through the strait.

While neither Shanahan nor Bolton elaborated on the gist of U.S. intelligence, other U.S. officials told Reuters there were

“multiple, credible threats” against U.S. forces on land,

including in Iraq, by Iran and proxy forces and at sea.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. deploying carrier, bombers to Middle East to deter Iran: Bolton

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Strait of Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean Sea as it continues operations in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility in this April 13, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clint Davis/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack, national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday.

With tensions already high between Washington and Tehran, a U.S. official said the deployment has been ordered “as a deterrence to what has been seen as potential preparations by Iranian forces and its proxies that may indicate possible attacks on U.S. forces in the region.”However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was not expecting any imminent Iranian attack.

Bolton – who has spearheaded an increasingly hawkish U.S. policy on Iran – said the decision, which could exacerbate problems between the two countries, was meant to send a “clear and unmistakable message” of U.S. resolve to Tehran.

Though he cited no specific Iranian activities that have raised new concerns, Iran has recently warned it would block the Strait of Hormuz if it was barred from using the strategic waterway. About a fifth of the oil consumed globally passes through the strait.

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said in a statement.

It marked the latest in a series of moves by President Donald Trump’s administration aimed at ratcheting up pressure on Iran in recent months.

Washington has said it will stop waivers for countries buying Iranian oil, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, taking the unprecedented step of designating it as a foreign terrorist organization, which Iran has cast as an American provocation.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this April 29, 2019 photo supplied by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/Handout via REUTERS

‘UNRELENTING FORCE’

The Trump administration’s efforts to impose political and economic isolation on Tehran began last year when it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal it and other world powers negotiated with Iran in 2015.

“The United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton said.

Bolton did not provide any further details.

A U.S. Navy statement issued early last month said the aircraft carrier and its accompanying convoy of ships had steamed out of Norfolk, Virginia, on April 1 “for a regularly scheduled deployment”, but it did not give any destination at the time.

While it is not rare for the United States to have aircraft carriers in the Middle East, Bolton’s language could increase tensions.

The threat late last month from the IRGC to close the Strait of Hormuz followed a U.S. announcement that it would end exemptions granted last year to eight buyers of Iranian oil and demanding they stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions.

European governments have opposed Washington’s reinstatement of sanctions on Iran.

A senior Trump administration official said at the time that any aggressive move by Iran in the strait would be unjustified and unacceptable.

Iran has made threats to block the waterway in the past, without acting on them.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. bombers drill over Korean peninsula after latest North Korea launch

U.S. bombers drill over Korean peninsula after latest North Korea launch

By Jack Kim and Kaori Kaneko

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – South Korean and Japanese jets joined exercises with two U.S. nuclear-capable bombers above and near the Korean peninsula on Thursday, two days after North Korea fired a missile over Japan, sharply raising tension.

The drills, involving two supersonic U.S. B-1B bombers, four U.S. stealth F-35B jets as well as South Korean and Japanese fighter jets, came at the end of annual joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises focused mainly on computer simulations.

“North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” said General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander, who made an unscheduled visit to Japan.

“This complex mission clearly demonstrates our solidarity with our allies and underscores the broadening cooperation to defend against this common regional threat. Our forward deployed force will be the first to the fight, ready to deliver a lethal response at a moment’s notice if our nation calls.”

North Korea has made no secret of its intention to develop the knowhow to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States and has recently threatened the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. It denounced the U.S. exercises in traditionally robust fashion.

“The U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces do not hide their bellicose nature, claiming that the exercises are to ‘counter’ the DPRK’s ballistic rocket launches and nuclear weapons development,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

“But the wild military acts of the enemies are nothing but the rash act of those taken aback by the intermediate-to-long range strategic ballistic rocket launching drill conducted by the army of the DPRK as the first military operation in the Pacific.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has warned North Korea it would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States and that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” in case of any provocation.

Trump on Wednesday declared “talking is not the answer” to resolving the long-standing impasse.

“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump, who last week said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “starting to respect” the United States, wrote on Twitter.

“Talking is not the answer!”

However, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, when asked by reporters just hours later if the United States had run out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea, replied: “No.”

“We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said before a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon. “We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests.”

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera spoke to Mattis by telephone and agreed to keep putting pressure on North Korea in a “visible” form, Japan’s defense ministry said. Japanese Prime Shinzo Abe said he and visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to urge China, North Korea’s lone major ally, to do more to rein in the North.

They also discussed the possibility of adopting a new U.N. Security Council resolution over North Korea, a British government source said.

SANCTION OPTIONS

The 15-member Security Council on Tuesday condemned the firing of an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan as “outrageous” and demanded that North Korea halt its weapons program, but the U.S.-drafted statement did not threaten new sanctions.

Japan was pushing the United States to propose new U.N. Security Council sanctions, which diplomats said could target North Korea’s laborers working abroad, oil supply and textile exports.

Diplomats expected resistance from Russia and fellow veto-wielding power China, particularly given new measures were only recently imposed after North Korea staged two long-range missile launches in July.

A U.S. ban on travel to North Korea comes into effect on Friday, curbing one of its few remaining supplies of foreign currency.

China again urged restraint from all parties.

Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly briefing that China would never allow war or chaos on the Korean peninsula, its doorstep, and military means were not an option.

“China strongly demands all sides to exercise restraint and remain calm and not do anything to worsen tensions,” Ren said, adding that Chinese forces were maintaining a normal state of alert along the North Korean border.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the situation on the peninsula was serious.

“I also want to stress that the current tense situation on the peninsula isn’t a screenplay or a video game,” she told reporters.

“It’s real, and is an immense and serious issue that directly involves the safety of people from both the north and south of the peninsula, as well as peace and stability of the entire region.”

‘KEY MILESTONE’

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency and the crew of the guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones conducted a “complex missile defense flight test” off Hawaii on Wednesday, resulting in the intercept of a medium-range ballistic missile target, the agency said.

The agency’s director, Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, called the test “a key milestone” in giving U.S. Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships an enhanced capability, but did not mention North Korea.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

North Korea routinely says it will never give up its weapons programs, calling them necessary to counter perceived American hostility.

For an interactive on North Korea’s missile capabilities, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010041L63FE/index.html

For a graphic on North Korean missile trajectories, ranges, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010050CG0RT/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES.png

For a graphic on Kim’s new act of defiance, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/NORTHKOREA-MISSILES/010050KV1C3/index.html

(Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Linda Sieg, William James and Nubohiro Kubo in TOKYO, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel)

Two U.S. bombers hold firing drills with South Korean forces

U.S. B-1B Lancer flies over South Korea during a joint live-fire drill in this handout picture provided by South Korean Air Force and relased by Yonhap on July 8, 2017. South Korean Air Force/Yonhap via REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) – Two U.S. supersonic bombers conducted live-fire drills on Saturday in South Korea in a show of force following North Korea’s test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the South’s military said.

The pair of B-1B Lancer strategic bombers flew from a U.S. base on Guam and were joined by U.S. and South Korean jet fighters to conduct the simulated destruction of an enemy ballistic missile launcher and underground facilities, the South’s air force said.

North Korea announced on Tuesday it successfully test-launched an ICBM, saying the missile was capable of carrying a large and heavy nuclear warhead.

Some experts believe the missile has the range to reach Alaska and Hawaii and the test signaled a significant advance in the North’s declared intent to build a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit the U.S. mainland.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the test indicated a quicker than expected pace of the North’s ICBM program.

The B-1B bombers conducted the live-fire exercise at a range in South Korea’s eastern Gangwon province, dropping weapons in a simulated attack on a missile launcher, the South Korean air force said in a statement.

South Korean and U.S. fighter jets conducted precision strike drills aimed at attacking enemy targets hidden underground, it said.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the bombers then flew west, hugging the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) border between the two Koreas, before leaving South Korean airspace.

The drill follows a joint artillery and missile exercise by South Korean and U.S. forces a day after the North’s ICBM test.

TRUMP WARNING

Despite the sabre-rattling, the United States and South Korea have said they are committed to resolving the crisis over the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile peacefully.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday in Hamburg, where the leaders of G20 nations are meeting, there would not be many good options left on North Korea if the peaceful pressure campaign failed.

U.S. President Donald Trump vowed on Thursday to confront the North “very strongly” and said Washington was considering “severe things” for the isolated state following the ICBM test.

The United States, Japan and South Korea agreed on Friday to push for a quick U.N. Security Council resolution to put new sanctions on North Korea.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit, Trump, Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to apply “maximum pressure” to counter the North nuclear threat.

North Korea has hailed the ICBM test as marking the completion of is strategic weapons capability that it says includes atomic and hydrogen bombs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a mausoleum honouring state founder Kim Il Sun on Saturday, the anniversary of his grandfather’s death, the North’s official KCNA news agency reported.

He was joined by military officials who contributed to the success of the ICBM test, the news agency said.

(Reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel)

China says it is vigilant as two U.S. bombers fly over South China Sea

FILE PHOTO: A B-1B Lancer from the U.S. Air Force 28th Air Expeditionary Wing heads out on a combat mission in support of strikes on Afghanistan in this file picture released December 7, 2001. Cedric H.Rudisill/USAF/Handout via REUTERS

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Friday it was monitoring U.S. military activities in the South China Sea, after two U.S. bombers conducted training flights over the disputed waters.

The U.S. Pacific Command said on its website that two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew a 10-hour training mission from Guam over the South China Sea on Thursday, in conjunction with the Navy’s USS Sterett guided-missile destroyer.

The exercise comes after a U.S. warship in late May carried out a “maneuvering drill” within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea.

The U.S. military conducts such “freedom of navigation” patrols to show China it is not entitled to territorial waters there, U.S. officials said at the time.

The latest exercise was part of Pacific Command’s “continuous bomber presence” program, but it did not give details on where it was conducted, and did not refer to it as a freedom-of-navigation operation.

“China always maintains vigilance and effective monitoring of the relevant country’s military activities in the South China Sea,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the United States.

“China’s military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and regional peace and stability,” it said.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, a stance contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities there, concerned they could be used to restrict free movement and extend China’s strategic reach.

U.S. allies and partners in the region had grown anxious as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had held off on carrying out South China Sea operations during its first few months in office.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Bangladesh says some restaurant attackers were well off and educated

By Aditya Kalra and Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh police sought more information on Monday from friends and family of the men suspected of carrying out a deadly attack on a restaurant in the capital, and some are believed to have attended top schools and colleges at home and abroad.

The gunmen stormed the restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone late on Friday and killed 20 people, most of them foreigners from Italy, Japan, India and the United States, in an assault claimed by Islamic State.

It was one of the deadliest militant attacks to date in Bangladesh, where Islamic State and al Qaeda have claimed a series of killings of liberals and religious minorities in the last year while the government says they were carried out by local groups.

Whoever was responsible, Friday’s attack marked a major escalation in the scale and brutality of militant violence aimed at forcing strict Islamic rule in Bangladesh, whose 160 million people are mostly Muslim.

Islamic State posted pictures of five fighters it said were involved in Friday’s atrocity to avenge attacks on Muslims across the world.

“Let the people of the crusader countries know that there is no safety for them as long as their aircraft are killing Muslims,” it said in a statement.

Posts on Facebook identified the men, pictured on an Islamic State website grinning in front of a black flag, as Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Andaleeb Ahmed and Raiyan Minhaj.

Most went to prestigious schools or universities in Dhaka and Malaysia, officials said.

“A majority of the boys who attacked the restaurant came from very good educational institutions. Some went to sophisticated schools. Their families are relatively well-to-do people,” Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told India’s NDTV.

TRACING ROOTS

Several posts on social media said the man identified by police as Nibras Islam attended Monash University in Malaysia. A friend who knew him while he studied at Dhaka’s North South University told Reuters that Islam later went to Monash.

Two others went to an elite public school in Dhaka called Scholastica. Masudur Rahman, deputy commissioner of Dhaka police, said officers were investigating those links.

Initial evidence points to the fact that Nibras Islam, Meer Saameh Mubasheer and Rohan Imtiaz “may be involved,” in the attack, Rahman said.

“There may be a link to international terrorist groups, including IS; we are looking into that angle,” he said, adding that the attackers were educated, well off and brainwashed.

Saifaul Islam, another investigator, said police were holding two people suspected of involvement in the assault, including one detained soon after the attack.

“We have two persons with us, but we don’t know if they are victims or suspects. They are currently undergoing treatment and we’d get to know about their role in the incident only after they recover.”

Nobody had yet come forward to claim the bodies of the six dead men, he said. “We are taking DNA samples of them and will see if it matches with the families. We have some suspicions, we know some boys had gone missing over the last two-three months.”

Just days after the attack claimed by its rival jihadi movement Islamic State, a regional branch of al Qaeda urged Muslims in India to revolt and carry out lone wolf attacks.

The call by al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) follows warnings by security officials and experts that the two groups are trying to outdo each other in the region and claim the mantle of global jihad.

Bangladesh’s $26 billion garment industry is braced for the fallout from the killings, fearing major retailers from Marks and Spencer to Gap Inc could rethink their investment.

Japan’s Fast Retailing Co, owner of the Uniqlo casual-wear brand, will suspend all but critical travel to Bangladesh and has told staff there to stay home.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has offered Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina help in the investigation.

“The Secretary (Kerry) encouraged the government of Bangladesh to conduct its investigation in accordance with the highest international standards and offered immediate assistance from U.S. law enforcement, including the FBI,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain in NEW DELHI and Zeba Siddiqui in MUMBAI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie)