The United States and South Korea have kicked off a massive aerial exercise in and around the Korean Peninsula featuring hundreds of fighter jets, multi-role combat aircraft, and other supporting planes in yet another
significant example of the two countries’ resolve to stand together following another major North Korean ballistic missile test. Not surprisingly, the Communist regime in Pyongyang has reacted with furor and it’s not clear if the drills will send an effective message amid confusing and conflict signals coming from President Donald Trump, his administration, and other senior American politicians.
On Dec. 4, 2017, military aircraft the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, along with the South Korean Air Force, began flying mock missions from eight air bases in South Korea – Cheongju, Daegu, Gwangju, Jungwon, Kunsan, Osan, Seosan, and Wonju. The event, nicknamed Vigilant Ace 2018, is the latest iteration of an annual exercise, but this is the first time six U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor and six F-35A Joint Strike Fighter stealth fighters, as well as U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs, will take part. Those additions come after months of provocative North Korean ballistic missile tests, including the fearsome demonstration of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017, as well as the country’s reportedly successful test of a thermonuclear weapon two months earlier.
"The threat here on the peninsula is very real, and countering that threat needs to be in the forefront of our minds,” U.S. Air Force Colonel William Betts, head of the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base, told the service’s reporters. “My biggest expectation for the Wing is to remove any 'exercise' mindset from the equation and maximize the realism of every response. We will ensure we have no regrets if we find ourselves executing contingency operations.”
Approximately 12,000 American personnel will take part in the exercise. In addition to the F-22s and F-35s, the U.S. Air Force says it will contribute F-16C/D Viper and F-15C Eagle fighter jets and A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, while the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy will send F/A-18 Hornet or Super Hornet multi-role fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. South Korea’s F-15K Slam Eagles and KF-16 Vipers, along with is aging F-4E Phantom IIs, will join the mock air war. Aerial refueling tankers, E-3 Sentry airborne command and control planes, and various intelligence platforms are undoubtedly also part of the 230 total aircraft taking part in the drills.
The U.S. Air Force says the event will focus on realistic scenarios centered on the kind of missions the two countries would have to fly together in order “to deter, and if necessary defeat, a rapidly evolving threat” on the Korean Peninsula. This could include practicing for coordinated, limited strikes against North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons infrastructure or important regime targets, as part of a so-called “decapitation strike.” Other training missions might focus on suppressing North Korea’s aging, but dense air defense networks and conventional artillery formations in support of such an operation in response to a surprise attack.
Including the Air Force’s F-22s and F-35s in the exercise roster is particularly notable, since the aircraft would likely be an essential part of the opening waves of any pre-emptive strike. In particular, these jets, as well as would be key in neutralizing surface-to-air missile sites in order to pave the way for follow-on strikes by non-stealthy jets. Electronic warfare aircraft such as the EA-18G could help suppress enemy air defenders who escape the initial round of attacks and American and South Korean aircraft could use stand-off cruise missiles and other weapons to attack those sites while still staying as far away from the threat area as possible.
After the Hwasong-15 launch, South Korea quickly made a demonstration of one of these capabilities by scrambling a KF-16 to drop an Israeli-made Spice 2000 glide bombs, which has a range of more than 35 miles, into the East Sea off the coast of the Korean Peninsula. A common feature on Israeli air-to-ground munitions, Spice uses uses a combination of electro-optical and GPS guidance, which gives the launching aircraft the ability to employ it at a stand-off range, but still directly control the weapon via a data link near the end of its flight, greatly increasing its accuracy. South Korea is also in the process of fielding the German-Swedish built Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile.
Of course, shows of force toward North Korea are hardly new and Marine F-35s have already taken part in a number of pre-planned and snap drills. Since January 2017, in light of North Korea’s provocations, the United States and South Korea both have launched an increasing number of such events in general, both in the air and on the ground, and have been surprisingly vocal about the various military options – including a nuclear strike – available to deter or destroy the regime in Pyongyang. This latest iteration of Vigilant Ace is well in line with this strategy.
At the same time, as we at The War Zone
have noted repeatedly, this has run the risk of simply fueling the North Korean propaganda machine and making the country’s premier Kim Jong-un more paranoid about his survival and that of his regime. Both sides undoubtedly know that a conflict would be disastrous for everyone involved, but there seems to be an increasing risk for miscalculation if the United States and North Korea in particular feel the other is inevitably heading toward a first strike.
North Korea consistently describes U.S.-South Korean drills as simply a prelude to a military invention. Kim himself has said that exercises and other shows of force have only vindicated his decision to develop and expand his country’s nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities.
The latest Vigilant Ace exercise has already begun to play out in typical fashion, unsurprisingly prompting a fierce response from North Korean authorities. In it, they underlined their consistent argument that the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are essential to protecting it from the threat of an American-led attack.
“The Trump team is begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean peninsula,” a spokesperson for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement to the country’s tightly controlled state media. “The latest developments clearly prove once again that peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the world can be maintained only when an effective balance of force is established between the DPRK and the U.S.”
Officially, the United States presently remains committed to using diplomatic and economic pressure to coerce North Korea to abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programs and return to negotiations with the international community about the future of the Korean Peninsula. After the Hwasong-15 launch, Secretary of Defense James Mattis remained particularly adamant about this point.
“I'm not willing to say that diplomacy has not worked,” he told reporters on Nov. 30, 2017, during a shared press conference with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj at the Pentagon. “We will continue to work diplomatically. We'll continue to work through the United Nations – the United Nations Security Council and we will be unrelenting in that.”
“The world recognizes what a regional and global threat North Korea is, that North Korea presents,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said during her daily briefing on the same day. “So many countries in the world are on board with this campaign, on board with the maximum pressure campaign.”
There had already been hope that this “maximum pressure” policy was paying off as North Korea had gone more than two months without test firing a ballistic missile prior to the Hwasong-15 launch. Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea policy had said in October 2017 that if the reclusive regime went 60 days without a provocative test, it could signal a willingness to negotiate.
This, of course, turned out not to be the case. Experts noted that the testing halt in North Korea was likely due a combination of domestic factors, including the need for the military to aid state-run collective farms with the harvest and the need for the troops to prepare for other, annual exercises, rather than any particular change in policy.
And despite the statements coming from the Pentagon and the State Department, North Korea is almost certainly paying attention to what seems like an increasing sense of inevitability among U.S. government officials about a possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula. After the Hwasong-15 launch, President Donald Trump simply said “I will only tell you that we will take care of it.”
Other senior officials have been increasingly suggesting that there is no way to deal with North Korea diplomatically. National Security Advisor U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who had insisted in August 2017 that Cold War-era deterrence concepts simply wouldn’t work against the regime in Pyongyang, made similar comments in an interview on Fox News on Dec. 3, 2017.
“I don't think you or anybody else is willing to bet the farm, or a U.S. city on the decision-making – rational decision-making of Kim Jong Un,” McMaster told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “Its intentions are to use that weapon for nuclear blackmail, and then, to, quote, you know, ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner.”
Lindsey Graham, a long-time Republic Senator from South Carolina, made even more striking comments that day. With increasingly little ambiguity, he suggested possibility of a violent confrontation might be far more realistic that many might think or hope.
“We’re getting close to military conflict because North Korea is marching toward marrying up the technology of an ICBM with a nuclear weapon on top that can not only get to America, but deliver the weapon,” Graham told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Dec. 3, 2017. “So I want them [the Pentagon] to stop sending dependents and I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.”
In his comments in October 2017, U.S. Special Envoy Yun made it clear that the United States has no formal line of communication with North Korea. As such, the regime in Pyongyang would have to rely heavily only these various public statements, plus anything it might get through back channels or espionage, in order to determine the U.S. government’s policy positions and plans.
On the one hand, North Korean authorities hear policy prescriptions centered on a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and shows of military force to deter it from any hostile actions. On the other, it sees well-connected American officials discussing a steady march toward war.
They also see the United States preparing for the possibility of a North Korean nuclear strike on its own territory, which Kim and his regime would be almost certain to try in the event of a pre-emptive strike. Authorities in Hawaii have begun monthly tests of Cold War-era alert sirens to warn of an incoming attack and members of Congress are talking about plans to try and rapidly expand missile defenses.
With all this in mind, it seems unlikely that exercises such as Vigilant Ace will give the North Koreans any additional pause in proceeding with their own plans. It may actually prompt them to demonstrate their own resolve and defiance in increasingly more provocative ways.
We at The War Zone have already written in detail about the political and practical reasons why North Korea might go ahead with an unprecedented atmospheric nuclear test in order to prove its capabilities beyond a doubt. Some experts are now increasingly concerned that such a test might be in the works, especially as earthquakes continue to damage the North Korean nuclear site at , which has reportedly resulted in the release of deadly testing by-products.
The increasing danger is that, in their respective drives to ensure the other side understands just how serious they are, the United States and North Korea may find themselves in a rhetorical trap where the only way forward is conflict. Hopefully Vigilant Ace will actually get across a message of the need to de-escalate the situation rather than contributing to an air of inevitability.
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