South Korea is slated to hold yet another joint military exercise with the US, involving more than a hundred F-35A aircraft to further “improve combat readiness” amid the tension with the North.

US-South Korea Large-scale Air Drills

The Republic of Korea (ROK) air force spokesman told reporters last week that the five-day, large-scale air exercise dubbed as the Vigilant Storm (formerly known as Vigilant Ace) will take place this coming October 31 until November 4. While the spokesman did not mention the number of aircraft participating in the drill, Yonhap News Agency reported that over a hundred South Korean stealth fighters are expected to join the exercise along with one Australian refueling tanker.

In a phone interview with Stars and Stripes, 7th Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Kelley Jeter said that about a hundred US aircraft will participate in Vigilant Storm Exercise, “including helicopters from Camp Humphreys and F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.”

South Korea Air Defense Drill ROK F-35A
An F-35A fighter of the South Korean Air Force takes off from an Air Force base in Chungju on July 14, 2022. (Image source: Yonhap)

As combat readiness is prone to deterioration, Jeter stressed the importance of practice that would routinely sharpen skills and stay ready at all times. “This training brings together elements from the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force and Air Force, and practices working together with [South Korean] air force capabilities,” she said.

The F-35As owned by the US and ROK have previously drilled together for the first time in July in an apparent show of force and “ironclad alliance” against North Korea’s evolving military threats. During the four-day drill, the allies mobilized around 30 aircraft, including South Korea’s F-35A, F-15K, KF-16, and FA-50 jets, while US-owned F-16 jets participated in the joint exercise.

ROK Air Force announced Vigilant Storm 2022 five days after about ten North Korean warplanes flew near the Inter-Korean border, which prompted the South to scramble fighters. The series of missile live-testing in Pyongyang that has been conducted since late September also caused alarm and subsequently raised alert in Seoul.

North Korea has conducted an unprecedented 26 rounds of missile testing this year, including an intermediate-range weapon that struck directly over northern Japan in early October. It also fired about a hundred artillery rounds toward the Yellow Sea last week, triggering Tokyo and Seoul to impose sanctions against suspected people and organizations identified as cooperating with Pyongyang’s notorious nuclear and missile program.

Following North Korea’s barrage, its state-run media organization said in multiple reports this month that the military activity and missile testing in the country have been in response to US-South Korean joint military drills that they deemed provoking and a security threat.

Previously known as Vigilant Ace, this large-scale, bi-annual bilateral training event is designed to keep peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, as well as renew the American forces’ commitment to stability in the Northeast Asia region through simulated wartime tasking.

Should Seoul Acquire Nuclear Weapons Too?

In other news, a South Korean senior official said that the country prefers using “US strategic assets” currently available on the Korean Peninsula to deter North’s nuclear threats rather than deploying tactical nuclear weapons.

Aside from more than 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, the sophisticated Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THADD) is also stationed in the country, a system capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with a hit-to-kill approach. THAAD was developed by Lockheed Martin based on the experience gathered during Iraq’s Scud missile attacks in the 1991 Gulf War.

THAAD interceptors during an intercept test on September 2013. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The senior official added that focusing on the timely deployment of “strategic assets” would be more favorable for the South than establishing a “nuclear sharing” agreement with the US.

Chung Jin-suk, Deputy Speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, wrote on his personal Facebook page that the 1991 Inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, which prohibits the South from possessing or producing nuclear weapons, should be repealed as soon as the North conducts its seventh nuclear test.

But this would still be up to Washington and its existing policy, which clearly stressed that the White House aims to eradicate nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula altogether, whether it may be in the North or South.

“We will seek sustained diplomacy with North Korea to make tangible progress toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while strengthening extended deterrence in the face of North Korean weapons of mass destruction and missile threats,” US President Joe Biden said via National Security Strategy press release last Wednesday.

Some senior officials also warned against deploying nuclear weapons in Seoul, saying it is unnecessary and could only “lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation” in Pyongyang and other people in the region.