Even as tensions ratchet up on the Korean peninsula, the Pentagon is kicking off one of its largest annual exercises in the Republic of Korea.
Hosted by the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, Exercise Max Thunder involves U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Republic of Korea (ROK) personnel and is designed to help train allied forces to defend South Korea. The war games started on April 17 and will run through April 28.
"Exercise Max Thunder serves as an invaluable opportunity for U.S. and ROKAF forces to train together shoulder-to-shoulder and sharpen tactical skills vital to the defense and security of the Korean Peninsula," Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, Seventh Air Force commander, said in a statement . "This exercise will rigorously test our aerial combat capability and highlights the ironclad commitment between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea and the multifaceted capabilities we possess in this theater.”
The focus of the exercise from the standpoint of F-16C units such as the 36th Fighter Squadron—which is based at Osan Air Base in South Korea—is to suppress or destroy enemy air defenses. In the case of North Korea, Pyongyang’s air defenses are not especially sophisticated— though they are more capable than many might imagine . But the North does have a huge volume of forces. Thus, training to suppress those air defenses is of paramount importance in the event of war.
“Team Osan is the SEAD first responder,” Capt. Austin Buller, 36th Fighter Squadron (FS) operations flight commander, said in an Air Force release. “We are just about the only unit on [the Korean Peninsula] with that capability, so it will be good practice for us and will also help our integration.”
A total of about 1,000 U.S. personnel will participate in the exercise. Participating in the war games are F-16s from 7th Air Force, Boeing AV-8Bs from the U. Marines’ 12th Marine Aircraft Group and EA-18Gs from the Navy’s Electronic Attack Squadron 132 (VAQ-132). All of the U.S. units will fly out of bases in Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, about 500 South Korean troops are also participating in Max Thunder. The South Koreans forces include the F-15K, F-16, F-5E, F-4E, KA-1, C-130, HH-60 and CN 235 aircraft.
Training together with the Korean helps both sides better prepare for a potential on the peninsula where Washington and Seoul’s forces will have to work together closely. “During this exercise, we use different mission sets to enhance our tactical proficiency,” Buller said. “Working with the Koreans is especially important here, and during this exercise we can get that face-to-face encounter in an air combat training scenario.”
It should be noted that Max Thunder is an annual exercise. The fact that the war games are being held during a time when tensions are running high is mostly a coincidence.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit : Creative Commons.