Korea and U.S. F-35As fly together for the first time

Fifth-generation F-35A fighter jets from the South Korean and U.S. air forces fly in formation during the two militaries' joint exercise this week. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA AIR FORCE]
Fifth-generation F-35A fighter jets from the South Korean and U.S. air forces fly in formation during the two militaries’ joint exercise this week. [REPUBLIC OF KOREA AIR FORCE]

South Korean and U.S. air forces conducted their first joint exercises with F-35A fighter jets from both countries in a symbolic show of combined strength.
 
The South Korean Air Force said Thursday that the two countries had conducted joint flying exercises over four days involving a number of warplanes, including fifth-generation F-35A fighter jets, starting Monday.
 
The arrival of U.S. F-35A fighter jets from Alaska was announced by the allies’ military authorities last week, their first public deployment to South Korea in five years.

The drills are designed to enhance the allies’ ability to carry out joint operations and enhance the interoperability of their F-35A jets, according to military authorities from both countries.

“The training session is an important exercise symbolizing the strength of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and their combined defense posture,” said Air Force Major Kwon Hae-bin from the 152nd fighter squadron of the 17th Fighter Wing.

“The pilots from both countries were able to share tactical and operational knowledge of the fifth-generation fighter jets through the exercises,” Kwon said.

Lt. Col. Ryan Worrell, a U.S. F-35A pilot from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, noted that the purpose of the exercise “is to safely execute tactics between us and ROKAF F-35s to show our ironclad alliance,” referring to the South Korean Air Force by the acronym for its official name, Republic of Korea Air force.

The exercises involved various maneuvers, including strike package and defensive operations, as well as airborne alert interdiction (XINT) drills, according to the South Korean Air Force.

This week’s joint exercises are the first to feature F-35A fighter jets from both countries. South Korea completed a deal to purchase 40 F-35A fighter jets in 2013 under the F-X III program and completed their deployment in January.

A total of 30 fighter jets, including F-35A, F-15K, KF-16 and FA-50 jets from the South Korean Air Force and F-35A and F-16 jets from the U.S. Air Force have participated in over four days of exercises.

The joint air force exercises came as North Korea started its annual summer exercises.

Military authorities in Seoul belatedly informed the media Wednesday that North Korea fired artillery rounds from its western coast into the Yellow Sea on Monday.  

The JCS told reporters Wednesday that it detected “trajectories” believed to be artillery shots on Monday, adding that the mortars fired by the North were between 122mm and 240mm in diameter.  

Defense officials said they were working to determine if the shots were tests of new weapons systems or part of the usual North’s summer exercises.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said earlier this week that it would no longer provide immediate updates to the media on North Korean artillery shots, saying they distracted from the military’s readiness and focus on major weapons tests, such as ballistic missile launches.

The artillery rounds from the North come amid rising tensions on the peninsula over the regime’s preparations for a nuclear test, which have been noted in several warnings issued by South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials.

The regime has blamed the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to South Korea for escalating tensions on the peninsula.

North Korea’s foreign ministry appeared to acknowledge the presence of U.S. F-35A fighter jets in South Korea on Wednesday when it noted that “U.S. reconnaissance planes and strategic assets have flown frequently over the Korean Peninsula in extraordinary military movements.”  

The North’s foreign ministry described current tensions as “an extremely dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula where war can occur at any moment.”

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]