The U.S. military sent four of its most advanced stealth fighter jets to accompany two strategic bombers in a flight over the Korean Peninsula for bombing drills on Thursday in a “direct response” to North Korea’s unprecedented launch over Japan of a missile designed to carry nuclear weapons two days earlier.
The dispatch of four of the U.S. military’s most high-tech fighter jets — and the two heavy bombers — was almost certain to raise hackles with nuclear-armed North Korea.
The two Guam-based B-1B bombers were joined by the four F-35B fighters stationed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture for a joint training drill over Kyushu airspace. The fighters and bombers later linked up with South Korean Air Force F-15Ks for a flight over the Korean Peninsula.
Those aircraft simulated precision strikes against the North’s “core facilities,” according to the U.S. Pacific Command and South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
The joint exercises involving U.S. heavy bombers over the peninsula were the first such known flights since Aug. 8.
The military muscle-flexing came after North Korea said Wednesday that its missile launch a day before over Hokkaido had been of an intermediate-range Hwasong-12, and that the drill — which had been meant as a response to to joint U.S.-South Korean war games — had involved military units “tasked with striking the bases” of American forces in the Pacific.
Thursday’s flight came as those war games, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, wrapped up.
“This mission was conducted in direct response to North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile launch, which flew directly over northern Japan on August 28 amid rising tension over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs,” the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said in a statement.
It said the mission had emphasized the “combined ironclad commitment to the defense of Allies and the U.S. homeland” and offered up “viable and ready military options.”
“North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” U.S. Pacific Air Forces chief Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy said. “This complex mission clearly demonstrates our solidarity with our allies and underscores the broadening cooperation to defend against this common regional threat. Our forward-deployed force will be the first to the fight, ready to deliver a lethal response at a moment’s notice if our nation calls.”
Overflights of the Korean Peninsula by heavy bombers such as the B-1B have incensed Pyongyang. The North views the joint exercises as a rehearsal for invasion or the targeting of its leadership, and has routinely lambasted them as “nuclear bomb-dropping drills.”
While not nuclear-capable, the B-1B — six of which are currently positioned in Guam, 3,360 km from North Korea — is regarded as the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force and has been modernized and updated in recent years.