Washington confirms scaled down drills

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Washington confirms scaled down drills

The U.S. Department of Defense on Thursday said next month’s combined aerial drills with South Korea will be scaled down, effectively confirming reports from Seoul that the original Vigilant Ace drills have been suspended this year.

In a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, William Byrne, vice director of the U.S. Joint Staff, declined to give specific force or airplane numbers for the joint air drills scheduled for December, but said they will have a “reduced scope” relative to Vigilant Ace.

Vigilant Ace is one of the largest annual aviation exercises regularly conducted by the two allies, which in 2017 involved a force totaling around 230 aircraft mobilized at 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.

Last year, as the Donald Trump administration began its diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, the allies suspended Vigilant Ace, instead conducting smaller drills under the name “Combined Flying Training Event,” which both Seoul and Washington said would also be the name for this year’s drills.

While scaled down, the planned exercise “meets all the requirements of the [South Korean] air force and U.S. Air Force to ensure readiness,” Byrne said, stressing that the “most important thing to us in the Korean theater is maintaining readiness, being ready to fight tonight.”

In addition to maintaining readiness and integration between the two militaries, Byrne also said the drills were set to allow U.S. “diplomats the space and the room to continue negotiations with North Korea,” highlighting what appears to be the intention behind the scale down.

David Eastburn, the Pentagon’s spokesman, on Wednesday also said the drills would allow space for conversation with Pyongyang, all the while stressing that the United States would not “scale or conduct our exercises based on North Korea’s anger.”

This year’s combined air drill plans generated controversy as a result of the apparent dissonance between South Korea and the U.S.’ militaries over the nature and scope of the combined aerial drills. While both countries said the drills would have a different name, the U.S. State Department’s announcement on Monday that the drills would move forward as planned stressed continuity, while South Korean defense officials hours earlier focused on what they said would be independent air exercises by the two countries’ respective air forces.

Byrne’s comments, however, show that this year’s combined aerial drills will essentially emulate the precedent from last year, confirming that denuclearization negotiations with North Korea remain a key priority for Washington.

To that account, a senior U.S. State Department official said Washington continues to expect the North Korean government to “live up to the commitments that its leaders made to” U.S. President Donald Trump, “which is full, complete and verifiable denuclearization.”

As to Pyongyang’s vehement complaints about being kept on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism this year, the official said Washington had “nothing further to add to the record at this time on that question.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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