Two Air Force F22 Raptors have arrived in South Korea in the latest U.S. show of force aimed at muting the attack threats from North Korea and defusing rising tensions along the DMZ, Defense Department officials said Monday.
The two stealthy fighters, billed by the Air Force as the most advanced warplanes ever built, flew from the 94th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at the Kadena airbase on Okinawa to the U.S. airbase at Osan over the weekend, the officials said.
The Raptors will remain at Osan, about 40 miles south of Seoul, for the rest of April as part of the Operation Foal Eagle joint exercises with the South Korean military.
"Their participation in this exercise has been planned for some time," said Pentagon chief spokesman George Little, but "it's important to display our commitment to the alliance" during the current faceoff with North Korea. F22s have stopped in South Korea three times before but never during a training exercise.
"It's all about alliance assurance," Little said of the deployment of the Raptors. The presence of the F22s, coupled with the recent flyovers of the peninsula by nuclear-capable B2 Spirit stealth bombers and B52 Stratofortresses, were also meant to send the message to the North that "we think it's time for them to change lanes" on the threats, Little said. "The choice is really North Korea's to make."
In addition to the buildup of air assets, the U.S. has also announced plans to bolster intercontinental ballistic missile defenses at interceptor sites in Alaska and on the West Coast, and signed a new joint defense pact with the South.
The two F22s were supporting Osan's 51st Fighter Wing, made up of the 25th Fighter Squadron of ground attack A10 Thunderbolts (Warthogs) and the 36th Fighter Squadron of F16 Fighting Falcons. The other U.S. airbase on the peninsula at Kunsan, about 150 miles south of Seoul, is home to the 8th Fighter Wing, consisting of the 35th and 80th Fighter Squadrons, both flying F16Cs and F16Ds.
The North annually ratchets up the bellicose rhetoric each spring during joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, but the new regime of 28-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has taken a far more provocative line.
In recent weeks, the North has cut off its military hotline to Seoul, warned of nuclear war, threatened U.S. bases in the region, announced that the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War was no longer in effect, and put out propaganda videos showing New York City and the U.S. Capitol in flames.
The North appeared to take notice of the arrival of the F22s, and the B2 and B52 flybys, in a blustery article in Rodong Shinmun, the newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. "It makes no sense to expect peace from the warmongers coming to attack with sophisticated weapons," the newspaper said.
In the past, South Korea has tended to turn the other cheek to provocations from the North to avoid a conflict that could swiftly spin out of control in the region, but new President Park Geun-hye, the first woman to lead the Seoul government, said the reaction to an attack would be different this time.
"If there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations," Park said in a statement after a meeting with senior defense and security officials.
The move by the Air Force to send the F22s to South Korea was the latest in the effort to establish the airplane's viability as a factor in the overall U.S. defense posture. Last year, the Air Force stationed F22s in the United Arab Emirates in a show of force against Iran.
Manufacturer Lockheed-Martin calls the F22 the fastest, stealthiest and most agile fighter in the sky, but the planes have been grounded several times due to recurring oxygen supply problems that have led to hypoxia-like symptoms among pilots.