The presentation was held during the celebrations of the 71st Armed Forces Day and the 70th anniversary of ROKAF (Republic Of Korea Air Force), one day before North Korea carried out possible submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The Republic of Korea Air Force displayed publicly its F-35s, for the first time since their delivery, during the celebration of the 71st Armed Forces Day. The ceremony this year was held at Daegu Air Force Base, home of the 11th Fighter Wing, and featured four F-35s, to mark their official introduction of the type into active service. One F-35 was on static display while the other three performed a flyover.
Other than the F-35, around 60 military aircraft were present at Daegu, as well as weapons systems from the Army, Navy and Air Force. President Moon Jae-in was at Daegu to review the massive line-up and said he felt “secure about the might of our military armed with new equipment such as F-35As that we disclosed for the first time” and that South Koreans would be “very proud” of the military capacity of their country.
According to officials, it’s the first time that the Armed Forces Day was held at an air combat command and this decision was made to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Air Force that falls on the same day.
South Korea already received eight F-35s out of a total order of 40 aircraft that will be delivered by 2021 in what is considered the biggest weapon purchase ever made by the country, with a total budget of KRW 7.4 trillion (about USD 6.15 billion). The first deliveries to the 17th Fighter Wing at Cheong Ju Air Base, started during March 2019, were handed in a low-profile manner, much similarly to what the Italian Air Force did in 2016.
According to South Korean news outlets, in early September a government spokesman said that ROKAF’s F-35s were to be joined next year by US Air Force’s F-35s, replacing F-16s stationed at Osan Air Base and Gunsan Air Base. Answering a query from TheAviationist, 1st Lt. Nikita Thorpe, spokeswoman for the Pacific Air Command, said “We are currently working basing in the Indo-Pacific through our strategic basing process. Currently, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska has been selected to base the F-35A and aircraft are anticipated to arrive next fall.”
Lt. Thorpe also added “While we do not discuss specific details of future operations or deployments, U.S. Air Force aircraft and personnel routinely deploy to conduct operations, and train with our allies and partners to strengthen military-to-military relationships to promote security.”
The statement somewhat denies, for now, the permanent basing of US F-35s in South Korea, but it also leaves open the possibility of a temporary deployment like the Theater Security Package in which F-35s from Hill AFB took part in Europe.
Back to the Armed Forces Day, it’s worth noting that during the event, as stated by President Moon during is speech, four F-15K fighter jets took off on patrol missions. Two of the F-15s flew over the disputed islets of Dokdo, claimed by both South Korea and Japan, prompting new protests by Japanese officials. In July 2019, the area hit the headlines after a close encounter between Russian Air Force and ROKAF aircraft, where the latter fired around 280 warning shots.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the presentation of the South Korean F-35 came few hours before North Korea fired at least one missile, possibly from a submarine, off its east coast on Oct. 2. It’s the ninth launch since June and it arrives a day after Pyongyang announced it would resume stalled talks over its nuclear programme with the United States. If confirmed, it would be the first time North Korea has launched an submarine-launched ballistic missile in three years.
North Korea has called the F-35 purchase a grave provocation that violate recent inter-Korean agreements aimed at lowering military tensions.