U.S. and South Korean marines stormed Hwanjin Beach in Pohang on Wednesday as part of their ongoing Ssangyong amphibious assault drills. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
POHANG, South Korea, March 29 (UPI) -- The United States and South Korea conducted major amphibious assault drills Wednesday, storming a beach in the southeastern city of Pohang with heavy weaponry and dozens of troops one day after North Korea unveiled its latest nuclear warheads.
The show of military prowess was part of the allies' ongoing Ssangyong, or Double Dragon, landing exercise, which began last week and runs through Monday.
The drills entailed division-level forces deployed on some 30 vessels including the amphibious assault ships ROKS Dokdo and USS Makin Island. Around 70 aircraft and 50 amphibious assault vehicles also joined in what the South Korean marines called an "overwhelming" demonstration of combined force.
At a session that was open to the media, F-35B stealth jets staged a bombing campaign before waves of shouting South Korean marines charged Pohang's Hwajin Beach, some 170 miles south of Seoul, on amphibious assault vehicles. Behind a fence at the end of a beach, a group of protesters held a large banner protesting the presence of U.S. troops in Korea.
U.S. Navy hovercraft known as Landing Craft Air Cushions followed, releasing assault vehicles onto the beach as engines roared and showers of sand swirled in the air. AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft rumbled overhead while the 45,000-ton USS Makin Island and several large South Korean naval vessels loomed on the horizon.
The demonstration came on the heels of the arrival of the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group in Busan on Monday. The allies also wrapped up their 11-day Freedom Shield joint military exercise last week.
North Korea has long criticized joint military drills on the Peninsula as preparations for an invasion. The secretive regime has conducted nearly a dozen weapons tests in recent weeks and on Tuesday unveiled new, smaller tactical nuclear warheads in state-run media.
U.S. and South Korean military officials insisted that Wednesday's highly weaponized beach assault training was for defensive purposes only, however.
"This is a routine exercise, it's defensive in nature and it's just contributing to the combined defense of the Korean Peninsula," Capt. Kevin Buss, communication strategy and operations officer of the U.S. 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told reporters on the beach.
"The amphibious capabilities that exist are diverse in nature," he said. "The main likely event that we'd be called upon to do something like this is humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to aid our friends and allies when they need help from the U.S."
The allies are holding the Ssangyong exercise for the first time in five years as Washington and Seoul continue to strengthen military ties amid the North's growing nuclear threat.