National

ASDF trains with B-52 heavy bombers in rare joint drill amid thaw with North Korea

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Air Force and Air Self-Defense Force conducted a joint exercise featuring American heavy bombers on Friday, in one of the first publicized bilateral military drills since U.S. President Donald Trump’s landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12.

The exercise involved two nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bombers stationed on the island of Guam and six ASDF F-15 fighter jets based at the Komatsu Air Base in Ishikawa Prefecture, near the Sea of Japan, U.S. and Japanese forces said in separate statements.

“The drill was meant to enhance joint operations abilities and raise combat skills,” the ASDF said in a statement late Friday.

It was not clear exactly where the exercise took place, but both sides said it was conducted in Japanese airspace. After the exercise concluded, the B-52s conducted training with the U.S. Navy in the vicinity of Okinawa Prefecture before returning to Guam, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said. Previous joint exercises involving Ishikawa-based ASDF fighters were conducted in the Sea of Japan last year, and were widely seen as intended to pressure nuclear-armed North Korea as it carried out an unprecedented number of missile tests.

Soaring tensions eased earlier this year as North Korea dispatched team to participate in the Winter Olympics earlier this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This set the stage for a spate of diplomatic meetings on the subject of denuclearization, including two summits between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and culminating in the historic Kim-Trump meeting in Singapore.

In May, a planned training exercise involving U.S. B-52 bombers and South Korean planes was scrapped after the South Korean government expressed concerns that it could generate tensions before the Singapore summit, media reports said.

The last reported dispatch of U.S. bombers to the area came in December, when it sent advanced U.S. stealth fighters and strategic bombers to link up with Air Self-Defense Force aircraft in airspace near Okinawa Prefecture, following the North’s test in late November of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts believe is capable of striking the United States’ East Coast.

In November, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces confirmed to The Japan Times that it had flown two B-52s for a rare joint mission with the ASDF over Japan in August. The bombers later flew near North Korea.

Overflights of the Korean Peninsula by heavy bombers such as the B-52, B-2 and B-1B have incensed Pyongyang. The North sees the flights, by what it has called “the air pirates of Guam,” as a rehearsal for striking its leadership and has routinely lambasted them as “nuclear bomb-dropping drills.”

In January, the U.S. Air Force announced that it had deployed six of its B-52 bombers to Guam, joining B-2 stealth bombers on the U.S. island territory, home to Andersen Air Force Base, a key American outpost in the Pacific. The base was also hosting several B-1B heavy bombers. While both the B-52 and B-2 are capable of carrying nuclear payloads, the B-1B has been modified to carry conventional ordinance only.