Fighter jets from South Korea and the United States came together today — at least in recent years — ‘show of force’ aimed squarely at North Korea, which launched no fewer than eight ballistic missiles on Sunday, in the latest incident of saber -rattling on the peninsula. A total of 20 fighters from the Republic of Korean Air Force, or ROKAF, and the US Air Force were involved in today’s airpower demonstration, which was held off the western coast of South Korea.
While there have been joint exercises between these air arms in the recent past, they tend to have been conducted without major publicity, including the release of photos and video. This practice began after President Donald Trump’s direct relationship with Kim Jong Un began and has carried on ever since, until now. Before that, constant highly publicized displays of capabilities, from heavy bombers visiting the Peninsula to massive tactical jet formations, were common in response to provocative North Korean acts.
According to South Korean accounts, the formation comprised 16 F-35A, F-15K, and F-16 fighters from the ROKAF as well as four USAF F-16s from the 8th Fighter Wing, the “Wolf Pack,” which is permanently based at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. Alongside the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base, this wing has a primary task of deterring North Korean aggression. Based on official imagery, most of the aircraft appeared to be carrying external weapons and stores — this obviously can’t be established for the F-35 stealth jets, with their internal weapons bays.
All of these aircraft would be expected to play a significant role in targeting North Korean ballistic and cruise missiles, nuclear facilities, regime infrastructure, and related command and control bunkers if a full-blown conflict were ever to break out on the peninsula. In many cases, these kinds of facilities are hardened and/or buried deep underground. The ROKAF, in particular, has invested heavily in high-end conventional capabilities, like fighter jets and standoff weapons, that would be able to penetrate the North Korean air defense network and hit these objectives if required. This is in addition to tearing down North Korea’s air defenses and going after its conventional warfighting capabilities.
“South Korea and the United States demonstrated their strong ability and determination to quickly and accurately strike any North Korean provocation,” the South Korean military said in a statement about the bilateral flight. It added that the two countries are keeping a close eye on potential further provocations by North Korea.
This significant display of military might was a clear signal directed at Pyongyang, which on June 5 fired eight short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) toward the sea off its east coast. The missiles were launched from at least four different locations, according to South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff. It’s notable that the North Korean test came just a day after South Korea and the United States concluded Carrier Strike Group Exercise 2022, a series of military maneuvers that included the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).
While the number of SRBMs launched by North Korea is concerning, many observers had been expecting North Korea to conduct a new nuclear test — its seventh in total — which would be even more provocative. As it is, the 35-minute missile salvo was the 18th round of tests of this kind since the start of the year.
With this in mind, it’s conceivable that the airpower show of force was planned to demonstrate resolve and capability as North Korea prepares to flex its fast-expanding nuclear capabilities, as much as it was tailored as a direct response to Pyongyang’s launch of multiple SRBMs.
Earlier this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that a tunnel entrance at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site had been opened, which may signal that a nuclear test is imminent. At the same time, the agency said that work is underway to expand the country’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is currently in Seoul to discuss the North Korean issue, said: “Any nuclear test would be in complete violation of UN Security Council resolutions [and] There would be a swift and forceful response to such a test … I believe that not only ROK and the United States and Japan, but the entire world will respond in a strong and clear manner.”
In the meantime, South Korea and the United States already responded in kind to the North Korean SRBM tests, when they fired eight surface-to-surface missiles into the sea off South Korea’s western coast on Monday. The barrage involved seven South Korean and one US missile, the latter being an MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS.
“The South Korea-US combined firing of the ground-to-ground missiles demonstrated the capability and posture to launch immediate precision strikes on the origins of provocations and their command and support forces,” South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a press release . “Our military strongly condemns the North’s series of ballistic missile provocations and seriously urges it to immediately stop acts that raise military tensions on the peninsula and add to security,” it added.
Overall, South Korea and the United States seem to be doubling down on their responses to North Korean military activities. On the one hand, this is keeping pace with Pyongyang’s recent spate of missile tests, but on the other it likely also reflects the broader aims of South Korea’s new conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol. In statements, Yoon has said he will take a hard line when it comes to responding to North Korean “provocations.”
Seoul’s revised posture also includes plans for larger-scale exercises with the United States, after bilateral maneuvers were scaled back during the previous South Korean administration and as a result of the period of entente between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.
For the time being, all eyes remain on the North and the anticipated nuclear test, which will presumably bring an even more forceful response from South Korea and its American ally. Whatever form that takes, it seems clear that tensions on the peninsula are, once again, likely to increase.
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