|A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter takes off from a South Korean Air Force base in Gwangju, Monday, during the allies' combined exercise, dubbed Vigilant ACE (Air Component Exercise). The five-day annual drills are taking place amid tension here following North Korea's launch of what it claimed was a new, more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile last week. / Courtesy of Republic of Korea Air Force|
By Jun Ji-hye
The South Korean and U.S. Air Forces began large-scale combined exercises, Monday, mobilizing some 230 aircraft including six F-22 Raptor fighters from the U.S.
The five-day Vigilant ACE (Air Component Exercise) held over South Korean airspace comes just days after North Korea launched what it claimed was a new, more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a super-large heavy warhead and striking anywhere on the U.S. mainland.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force said the allies' drills, in which 12,000 personnel from the two air forces are participating, will demonstrate their combined air power against the Kim Jong-un regime.
"Vigilant ACE is the allies' annual combined exercise designed to enhance their readiness posture and capability of carrying out missions in the event of war," the Air Force said in a press release. "The drills highlight the longstanding military partnership and enduring friendship between the two nations."
For the drills, the U.S. Air Force Raptor fighters arrived at an air base in Gwangju, Saturday.
Cited as the most adept fighter in the world, the Raptor is a fifth-generation, twin-engine, all-weather stealth tactical fighter aircraft capable of infiltrating enemy airspace to drop ordinance including nuclear weapons. It also has electronic warfare and signal intelligence capabilities.
Six F-35A stealth fighters have also been dispatched to the Korean Peninsula, with B-1B Lancer strategic bombers scheduled to arrive soon.
Other aircraft to join the drills include six EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and some Marine F-35Bs, stationed in Japan.
For its part, the ROK Air Force mobilized its F-15K, KF-16 and FA-50 fighter jets.
Air Force officials here said pilots of the two nations will be trained to prevent North Korean aircraft from entering South Korean airspace while being able to strike key facilities in the North including its nuclear facilities and transporter erector launchers.
The North, which has been showing sensitive responses to the dispatch of U.S. strategic weapons to the peninsula, voiced its criticism of the exercise through its state media.
A statement issued by a spokesman of the North's foreign ministry said Saturday that the Donald Trump administration is "begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean Peninsula," according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
"The drill would be unprecedented in its size and nature of simulating an actual combat situation as well as in the number of the U.S. major strategic assets including F-22 Raptor and F-35 stealth fighters involved," the statement said.
"The international community terms the moves of the U.S. very alarming and is keeping a close watch on the exercise with great concern and anxiety as the U.S. is engrossed in making successive military provocations by mobilizing a greater amount of its nuclear strategic assets than ever, thereby driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of crisis," it added.
On Nov. 29, Pyongyang launched what it claimed was a new Hwasong-15 ICBM from a site 30 kilometers north of Pyongyang on a lofted trajectory. It flew 960 kilometers in 53 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 4,475 kilometers.
After the launch, which broke a 75-day lull in the North's provocations, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who observed the test, declared the North had finally completed its nuclear force, according to the KCNA.
Defense analysts said if the missile had been fired on a standard trajectory, it could have flown more than 10,000 kilometers, which is, in theory, far enough to reach the east coast of the U.S. mainland.