Kim Gamel and Yoo Kyong Chang
Stars and Stripes
SEOUL, South Korea — A state-of-the-art U.S. stealth fighter jet malfunctioned after landing and had to be towed to a hangar during joint war games that kicked off on Monday, officials said.
The five-day annual training exercise known as Vigilant Ace began days after North Korea test-fired its most powerful missile, causing already high tensions to spike as it demonstrates rapid progress in its nuclear weapons program.
The drills involve 12,000 U.S. servicemembers along with South Korean airmen and more than 230 warplanes, including for the first time six F-22 Raptors, six F-35A Lightning IIs and 12 F-35Bs. The B variant is the short-takeoff, vertical-landing version of the stealth aircraft.
One of the Raptors touched down at about 8 a.m. Monday at a South Korean base in Gwangju, 170 miles south of Seoul, but then couldn’t move and had to be towed, a South Korean official told Stars and Stripes.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, didn’t provide more details, referring other questions to the Air Force. The 7th Air Force public affairs office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Yonhap News Agency first reported the problem and published photos of an F-22 being towed.
North Korea has condemned the five-day annual air force training exercise, known as Vigilant Ace, saying it would push the divided peninsula “to the brink of nuclear war.”
U.S. and South Korean officials insisted the drills were defensive in nature.
“This realistic air combat exercise is designed to enhance interoperability between U.S. and [South Korean] forces and increase the combat effectiveness of both nations,” 7th Air Force said in a statement. “It is not in response to any incident or provocation.”
South Korean media also reported that B-1B bombers would join the drills, but officials did not confirm that. The 7th Air Force said “this exercise is comparable in size to previous Vigilant Ace exercises, disputing media reports that it’s the largest-ever.
It said the inclusion of the latest fighter jets “allows the military to learn more about the F-35’s capabilities and how best to utilize them and integrate them with other platforms.”
Joint military exercises on the divided peninsula always infuriate North Korea, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion. Vigilant Ace began as tensions are at their highest level in decades as North Korea has made rapid progress toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday that officials and experts said had the potential to reach Washington, D.C., although it reportedly broke up before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
President Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the North if forced to defend the United States or its allies.
On the eve of the exercise, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang will “seriously consider” countermeasures against the drills and warned Washington and Seoul will “pay dearly for the provocations.”
The exercise, previously known as Beverly Bulldog, involves troops from all branches and 230 aircraft at eight U.S. and South Korean military installations.
The United States maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
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