The United States and South Korea conducted joint military drills with F-35A fighters this week for the first time ever, South Korea's Air Force announced Thursday. Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea Air Force
SEOUL, July 14 (UPI) -- South Korea and the United States staged their first-ever joint drills with F-35A stealth fighter jets amid concerns over an imminent North Korean nuclear test, the South Korean Air Force announced Thursday.
The four-day training exercises began Monday and involved 30 planes, including South Korea's F-35A, F-15K, KF-16 and FA-50 aircraft alongside American F-35A and F-16 jets.
"The drills were arranged to improve the performance of joint operations through practical training and to improve the interoperability of the F-35A, a fifth-generation fighter jet jointly operated by the two countries," the South Korean Air Force said in a statement.
Lt. Col. Ryan Worrell, a U.S. F-35A pilot, said in the statement this week's training is meant to "ensure security in the Korean Peninsula and to strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance."
Seoul has purchased 40 of the Lockheed Martin-manufactured fifth-generation jets and has plans to buy 20 more over the next several years.
Last week, the United States sent six F-35A jets to South Korea from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. It was the first known deployment of the stealth fighters to the Korean Peninsula since December 2017 and comes in the wake of an agreement between Seoul and Washington to ramp up joint military exercises.
At a summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in May, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed that Washington would "deploy strategic U.S. military assets in a timely and coordinated manner as necessary."
Seoul and Washington had scaled back their joint drills in recent years during a period of engagement with Pyongyang under the administrations of U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
North Korea has long condemned the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion, while leader Kim Jong Un last year slammed the South's "over-the-top" modernization of its military, singling out the F-35A jets.
Pyongyang has conducted at least 18 weapons tests so far in 2022, including its first intercontinental ballistic missile launches since 2017. Officials in Seoul and Washington have said over recent weeks that North Korea appears poised for its seventh nuclear detonation at any time.