SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and South Korea aim to turn the heat up as high as possible on North Korea with major joint air force exercises begun Monday, drawing attention to how the North reacts.
Some 230 American and South Korean aircraft, including 24 stealth fighters, are set to take part in the annual Vigilant Ace war games running through Friday -- a major show of force complementing economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
The exercises come the week after North Korea fired a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile. On Wednesday, Pyongyang called the test a success and said it had "finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force."
Show of might
The stealth aircraft in the war games include F-22 fighters, thought to be capable of top speeds over Mach 2.5, and cutting-edge F-35s. The air forces will likely show off preemptive strike capabilities by rehearsing responses to a hypothetical detection of a missile launch, such as infiltrating North Korean airspace and destroying mobile launchpads or bombarding troop concentrations deployed at the militarized border.
Drawing particular notice from security experts are the F-22s, which would deploy from American military bases in Japan if needed, and would likely be tasked with precise strikes on nuclear facilities or key figures in leader Kim Jong Un's government. The North's weak air defense network makes the craft a major threat. F-22s only rarely take part in U.S.-South Korean exercises, and their inclusion hints at how seriously President Donald Trump's administration views the situation.
In an emergency, electronic warfare measures would also be taken to incapacitate enemy air defense and command systems. Some also expect B-1 strategic bombers to fly in from Guam. Drills will also be held to practice defending against a sea invasion by special forces of the Korean People's Army.
About 12,000 U.S. personnel are set to take part in the war games, which the military calls a "realistic air combat exercise" geared to "enhance interoperability between U.S. and Republic of Korea forces and increase the combat effectiveness of both nations."
The U.S. and South Korea held joint maritime drills with vessels including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines in October.
American forces also conducted aerial exercises Monday with Japan's Air Self-Defense Force above the Sea of Japan and East China Sea regions. Japanese fighters including two F-2 planes from a Fukuoka Prefecture base and two F-15s from Naha in Okinawa Prefecture participated, joined by U.S. craft including two F-35s also stationed in Okinawa and two FA-18 jets from Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Turning up the dial
The Trump administration is applying its strategy of "maximum pressure" on the military front on top of international sanctions in hopes of wearing down the North's resolve.
This week's drills also point to a sense of urgency in Washington. North Korean ICBMs are undeniably advancing in range, bringing the American mainland in reach. With time growing short before the missiles can be operationally deployed, the Trump administration is being backed into a corner.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of the ruling Republican Party said in a CBS television appearance Sunday that with the threat of conflict looming, "it's now time to start moving American dependents" out of South Korea. He was referring to people including the spouses and children of the 28,500 or so American military personnel stationed there.
North Korea has heightened its guard in response to the large-scale war games. The online edition of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, called the exercises unforgivable, reckless and criminal Monday and said the nation would respond decisively.
Since the North declared its nuclear program complete last week, activity has been detected there that some believe could be preparations for firing a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The Rodong Sinmun reported Sunday that Kim had visited a factory in the northern province of Chagang that made a tire for the new missile's mobile launchpad. Some expect that the North, which clings to its nuclear and missile development, may stage another provocation this month. Others say Pyongyang's boasts of completing its nuclear program may motivate it to pursue dialogue from the standpoint of a nuclear power.