U.S. says aerial drill will go ahead

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U.S. says aerial drill will go ahead

The U.S. State Department on Monday said next month’s annual U.S. combined aerial exercises with South Korea would move forward as planned, contradicting an earlier announcement from Seoul that the drills would be suspended to support diplomatic efforts with North Korea.

However, according to the State Department, the drills will not be held under the name Vigilant Ace but instead will be conducted under the name “Combined Flying Training Event,” just as the allies did last year. The drills had been conducted under the name Vigilant Ace since their conception in 2015 until 2018.

Vigilant Ace is one of the largest aviation exercises regularly conducted by the two allies, which in 2017 involved a force totaling around 230 aircraft mobilized at the Osan Air Base, including F-22s, F-35As and F-35Bs, as part of a massive show of strength aimed at relaying a warning to North Korea.

In a reply to a question by the JoongAng Ilbo about whether Vigilant Ace would be canceled, the U.S. Department of Defense’s spokesman David Eastburn said there were no plans in place to cancel the combined drills, only to continue them in the form of this flying training event.

As to the purpose of the renamed drills, Eastburn told the JoongAng Ilbo in a phone conversation that the exercise, as with any other combined training, is meant to strengthen the partnership and interoperability of the two countries’ militaries.

These remarks are a stark contrast to those put out by defense officials in South Korea, who said Vigilant Ace would be “suspended” in place of independent air exercises by the allies’ respective air forces.

In the conciliatory atmosphere that occupied the Korean Peninsula last year following multiple inter-Korean summits and a historic U.S.-North Korea summit at Singapore in June, Seoul and Washington announced they would suspend Vigilant Ace that year “for the purpose of achieving complete denuclearization.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, a vehement critic of U.S. foreign military expenditures, openly cast doubt on the necessity of what he called “war games” with South Korea at a press conference following his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying it was too expensive to fly “big massive planes” from Guam to South Korea and then back.

The remarks, and the litany of similar comments in subsequent months, appeared to jive with North Korea’s long-standing objective to end U.S.-South Korean combined military drills and reduce the U.S. footprint on the Korean Peninsula.

Several other combined military exercises have since been shelved or scaled down over the last two years, including Foal Eagle - a massive land, sea and air operation - and Key Resolve, a computerized command post drill, which were replaced by a smaller variant in the so-called Dong Maeng command post exercise.

Yet neither the scaling down or renaming appeared to satisfy North Korea, which in August slammed the command post exercise as preparations for war - a label it frequently employs to attack military cooperation between the allies.

While the United States openly acknowledged Vigilant Ace and the renamed drills are the same exercises, the comments from the South Korean officials suggest Seoul may be trying to tone down the importance of the exercise in order to avoid antagonizing an already beleaguered negotiation process with Pyongyang.

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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