Korea, U.S. to hold joint air drills on heels of new launch

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Korea, U.S. to hold joint air drills on heels of new launch

Washington’s military response to Pyongyang’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test will unfold next week when it joins Seoul for a five-day aerial exercise known as Vigilant Ace.

The annual drill, which kicks off next Monday, will include nearly 90 military airplanes from the South Korean Air Force and 150 from the United States Air Force. Some 12,000 American soldiers are also expected to take part.

The North Korean regime sees any combined show of force between the allies as a rehearsal for invasion and regime change.

The U.S. 7th Air Force, based in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, said in a statement that the exercise is expected to be the same as usual, but a South Korean government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Washington was vying to exert maximum pressure on Pyongyang for its ICBM launch last Wednesday.

A different local government official said one option the U.S. Air Force is currently weighing is to send a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber to South Korea for the drill, which is capable of carrying nuclear weapons and is hard for the North to detect with its radar system.

The B-2 Spirit approached the South in late October, when the U.S. Strategic Command said it dispatched the aircraft on a long-range mission to the Pacific area, without giving any specifics regarding its destination.

The mission, said the command, was intended to “familiarize air crew with air bases and operations in different geographic combatant commands, enabling them to maintain a high state of readiness and proficiency.”

The mission came just days before President Donald Trump landed in the area for a regional tour.

“These missions validate our always-ready global strike capability,” said the command, “and are a visible demonstration of commitment to our allies and enhancing regional security.”

The U.S. Air Force has yet to confirm precisely which of its aircraft will participate in the event, but the lineup is expected to include eight F-22 Raptors as well as six F-35A or F-35B Lightening IIs, all 14 of which are stealth fighters.

The drill will come less than a month after a joint naval exercise between South Korea and the United States, which saw three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups converge in the Western Pacific for a rare four-day operation. The USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt and their accompanying warships coordinated air defense drills, sea surveillance, defensive air combat training and close-in coordinated maneuvers, among others.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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