The U.S. sent powerful B-1B bombers from Guam for joint exercises with the South Korean Air Force over the Korean Peninsula late Tuesday as President Donald Trump gathered his top national security advisers to discuss “a range of options” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The South Korean military said Wednesday that two of its F-15K fighter jets had linked up with the U.S. B-1Bs after they entered South Korean airspace off the east coast. The warplanes conducted an air-to-ground missile drill, flying across the peninsula to the waters between South Korea and China, where they conducted a similar firing exercise, the Yonhap news agency quoted the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying.
The joint chiefs called the exercises routine and said they had “showed off the allies’ resolve for strong retaliation against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”
The U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in a statement that Air Self-Defense Force fighters had also joined the drill, making it the first nighttime combined exercise for the U.S. bombers with fighters from Japan and South Korea.
“Flying and training at night with our allies in a safe, effective manner is an important capability shared between the U.S., Japan and the Republic of Korea and hones the tactical prowess of each nations’ aviators,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Patrick Applegate said in the news release. “This is a clear demonstration of our ability to conduct seamless operations with all of our allies anytime anywhere.”
Experts said the joint U.S.-South Korean missile drill would serve as practice for taking out any number of targets.
“But the primary objective in any military response to recent North Korean missile and nuclear provocations would be elimination of sites that support missile launches or nuclear development,” said Michael Bosack, a former deputy chief of government relations for U.S. Forces Japan. “As such, training to achieve those objectives represents the likeliest purpose of this kind of drill.”
Also Wednesday, the U.S. Pacific Command revealed that the USS Tucson, a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, had arrived in South Korea last weekend as part of its regional deployment.
Earlier Tuesday in Washington, Trump had huddled with his national security team for a meeting from Pentagon chief Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.
“The briefing and discussion focused on a range of options to respond to any form of North Korean aggression or, if necessary, to prevent North Korea from threatening the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons,” the White House said in a brief statement.
The North had hinted last month at the possibility of ramped-up actions by Pyongyang, including shooting down U.S. bombers that fly near its disputed border or detonating a nuclear device over the Pacific Ocean.
On Sept. 3 it conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test, purportedly of a hydrogen bomb, and has launched dozens of missiles this year — including two over Japan — as it moves closer to mastering the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped, long-range missile.
In July, it conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S.
Trump has engaged in a war of words with North Korea, variously threatening to rain “fire and fury” on the nuclear-armed country of 25 million people and to “totally destroy” it if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, including Japan.
He has also repeatedly said that all options — including military action — remain on the table, and asked Mattis to deliver those to him.
Trump has also appeared to dismiss a diplomatic solution, deriding past attempts at negotiations and saying that “only one thing” could bring the crisis to a close.
Mattis said Monday that the U.S. Army “must stand ready” in the face of continued provocations by the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.
Delivering the keynote address at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting, the Pentagon chief outlined the U.S. military’s current strategy toward Pyongyang, saying “it is right now (a) diplomatically led, economic sanctioned, buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off its path.”
He conceded, however, that “neither you nor I can say” what the future holds for the regime.
“So there’s one thing the U.S. Army can do, and that is, you have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ, if needed,” Mattis said.