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US, Allies 'Blitz' Korea with Massive Air Power Display

U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron, participate in an elephant walk during Exercise VIGILANT ACE 18 at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Dec. 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Franklin R. Ramos)
U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron, participate in an elephant walk during Exercise VIGILANT ACE 18 at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Dec. 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Franklin R. Ramos)

The U.S. sent its most advanced stealth fighters as part of a massive contingent of air power to the Pacific for a war game this week that may be more about sending a message to North Korea than training with allies.

While the jets -- made to evade detection from surface-to-air missiles -- have flown in joint exercises before, their addition to the lineup for the Air Force's week-long Vigilant Ace 18 could be seen as changing the play.

Breaking down the numbers: a massive force totaling 230 aircraft is participating in the U.S.-led drills with South Korean allies at Osan Air Base to focus on interoperability, security and combat airpower, the Air Force said.

That includes two dozen stealth fighters, including six F-22 Raptors twin-engine jets, six F-35As Lighting II single-engine jets and a dozen F-35B vertical takeoff versions in the Pacific. The aircraft will fly alongside F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15 Eagles, F-18 Hornets, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and EA-18G Growlers, and Republic of Korea F-15K Slam Eagles and F-4 Phantom IIs, according to the service.

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F-22s were last in the Pacific in February for joint training with Australian counterparts at Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal.

Raptors last deployed to Osan as a direct response to North Korea in February 2016 in a show-of-force exercise alongside South Korean F-15K Slam Eagles and U.S. F-16s.

A dozen F-35s are currently deployed to Kadena Air Base, Japan, as part of the first-ever F-35A theater security package, or TSP, which are forward-deployed aircraft units that conduct missions to reassure partner and ally forces and to maintain security and stability across a region.

The Marine Corps earlier this year stationed a squadron of F-35Bs at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan.

"In the event we need to help defend our 51 million Korean allies, I need to be sure the 51st Fighter Wing is synchronized with the combined-joint force," Col. William D. Betts, 51st FW commander, said in a release.

"Vigilant Ace is an opportunity for us to do just that: Focus on getting smarter, faster and more capable than we were yesterday while we generate combat airpower and strengthen the alliance," he added.

The timing of the exercise, previously called Beverly Bulldog, is unique. While the event is now in its ninth year and occurs around the same time every year, North Korea last week flew its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile to date -- the Hwasong 15 -- in a test that reportedly marked the highest and longest duration flight yet of any North Korean ballistic missile.

While the size of jet force is significant, "F-22s and F-35s have exercised together before," noted at least one defense analyst in Washington, D.C.

There are some elements of training with allies and coordinating with fourth-generation aircraft, but mostly this is about messaging, the source told Military.com on background.

"And I would add: ramping up pressure," the analyst said. "In a way, that's sending a message, but showing North Korea that we are serious and could initiate operations at a time of our choosing creates a new element their leadership has to consider when deciding on further tests or other possibly provocative actions."

The analyst added, "It's like in a football game when the defense shows the blitz and forces the opposing quarterback to reconsider his play calling."

The "messaging" strategy may go hand-in-hand with diplomacy.

"I believe in a credible threat of force, so I'm for the military exercises, for THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense], for missile defense, for our three ships and nuclear submarine cruising around," Wendy Sherman, the State Department's former undersecretary of state for political affairs and former North Korea policy coordinator, said during last month's DefenseOne Summit.

"But none of that matters if that's all there is," she said. "All that does is escalate the situation, but if it is a credible threat of force in service of diplomacy, then you've got a strategy that's using all of the tools at our disposal to get there."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.