The US and South Korea launched their largest aerial drills yet on Monday, less than a week after North Korea tested its new Hwasong-15 missile which military observers said has the capacity to strike Washington DC, or nearly any other location in the continental US. The launched shattered nearly two months of calm as many suspected the North’s benefactors in China were making good on their promises to rein in the restive state’s belligerent behavior.
As we reported Sunday, the annual US-South Korean drills, called Vigilant Ace, will run until Friday. Six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters will be deployed among the more than 230 aircraft taking part. The North has condemned the exercises as yet another provocation.
F-35 fighters will also participate in the drill, which will involve the largest number of 5th generation fighters, according to a South Korea-based US Air Force spokesman quoted by Reuters.
Around 12,000 US troops, including the Marines and Navy, will join South Korean troops. Aircraft participating in the drills will take off from eight different US and South Korean military installations.
South Korean media reports said B-1B Lancer bombers could join the exercise this week. The US Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.
The joint exercise is designed to enhance readiness and operational capability and to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the US military had said before the drills began.
The drills come a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile ever in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.
North Korean state media said the country would consider the “highest-level hard-line countermeasures in history” in response to the drills. It referred to a similar statement in September, which Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said may include a ground-level test of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea regularly cites military drills around the peninsula as justification for its nuclear and missile-testing program. The isolated regime on Nov. 29 launched an ICBM with improved technology that can deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the US, and claimed it had completed its nuclear force.
According to Bloomberg, the joint exercises are similar in size to previous drills, but with the inclusion of six F-22s, six F-35As and 12 F-35B fighters, according to a U.S. military statement. The U.S. and South Korea said the exercises are an annual event were aimed at ensuring peace and security on the peninsula. Yonhap News reported that the allies planned to stage simulated attacks on mock North Korean nuclear and missile targets.
US officials took to the Sunday shows to warn that the possibility of war with the North is growing larger by the day. White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told Fox News on Sunday that North Korea was the greatest immediate threat to the US, saying that the potential for war “is increasing every day.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham said it’s time to start moving the families of American military personnel out of South Korea. “It’s crazy to send thousands of children to South Korea, given the provocation of North Korea,” the member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Meanwhile, a Russian delegation visited North Korea last week and reported that the North would be open to talks with the US as long as Russia participates as a third-party observer. Vitaly Pashin, one of the delegation’s members, said that before last week’s ICBM launch, North Korea had refrained from military provocations for 75 days while awaiting reciprocal steps from the US.
But instead of meeting North Korea halfway the US “announced large-scale surprise military drills.”