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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update at 1935 KST: This article has been updated to reflect the MND’s retraction of its claim that the exercise was the “largest” to take place on the Korean peninsula.
Washington and Seoul on Monday kicked off a major air combat exercise that North Korea has described as the “largest ever.”
The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) Operations Command and the Seventh Air Force will conduct the annual exercise named “Vigilant Ace” until Friday, South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced on Monday.
Moon Sang-gyun, a defense ministry spokesperson, said the purpose of the joint air combat drill was to “enhance the capability of executing combined operations in wartime.”
The U.S. Seventh Air Force on Monday confirmed to NK News that six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters would be mobilized during the annual military flying exercise – the first time that Washington has deployed six F-22 Raptors on the Korean peninsula “simultaneously.”
Six F-35A and 12 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter jets are also taking part in the training, bringing the total number of stealth fighters participating to 24.
Numerous South Korean outlets have also reported that U.S. B-1B bombers will participate in the joint air drills – claims that the Seventh Air Force declined to confirm to NK News.
The F-22 fighter has been described by the U.S. Air Force as its “newest fighter aircraft,” with “a significant capability to attack surface targets.”
It is also known to be able to fly at a speed of greater than 1.5 Mach (1150.9 mph).
The U.S. Pacific Air Forces announced in late November that 12,000 U.S. personnel would participate in the annual Vigilant Ace 18 along with airmen from the ROKAF.
230 aircraft at eight U.S. and South Korean military installations would be mobilized during the drills, the U.S. military said at the time.
Local media on Monday, however, suggested that 260 fighters would be deployed – reports the U.S. Seventh Air Force said it was “looking into.”
The annual drill comes less than a week after North Korea’s launch of the“newly-developed” Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The exercise intends to test the ROK and the U.S. air forces’ ability to prevent North Korean aircraft from infiltrating South Korean airspace, according to South Korean media.
The ROK and the U.S. army will also reportedly concentrate on practicing “surgical strikes” against targets related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
Hundreds of fighters are set to carry out day and night-time training, striking around 700 main targets.
The U.S. and South Korean air force will also practice strikes on Korean People’s Army (KPA) long-range artillery and practice maneuvers block marine infiltration by North Korean special forces.
Seoul’s defense ministry declined to share further details during an on-camera briefing.
“In the perspective of carrying out the wartime operation plan, we can provide the answer based on limited information with regard to specific details and detailed missions,” a senior official at the ROKAF told assembled media.
North Korea denounced the drills in a series of statements over the weekend.
A spokesman for the ruling party-linked Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) on Sunday warned of “terrible retaliation” in response, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
The risk caused by the military drill, the statement continued, “has never been higher,” accusing “insane President Trump” of “running wild” in his response to last week’s missile test.
A spokesman for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday condemned the “largest ever” drill, accusing it of being “unprecedented in its size and nature of simulating actual combat situation as well as in the number of the U.S. major strategic assets.”
The statement, carried by KCNA, said the drill demonstrated that peace and security on the Korean peninsula could be maintained by establishing an “effective balance of force” between Pyongyang and Washington.
“Should the Korean peninsula and the world be embroiled in the crucible of nuclear war because of the reckless nuclear war mania of the U.S., the U.S. will have to accept full responsibility for it,” the statement read.
North Korea typically begins its own winter military exercises in December.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: U.S. Air Force, file photo of F-22 Raptors