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(3rd LD) S. Korea's Air Force welcomes arrival of 2 F-35A stealth fighters

All Headlines 17:38 March 29, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 2, 6; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, March 29 (Yonhap) -- The Air Force received two U.S.-made F-35A fighter jets at a key base in South Korea on Friday to join the ranks of Asia's few radar-evading warplane operators, Seoul's arms procurement agency said.

They arrived at the 17th Fighter Wing in Cheongju, 140 kilometers south of Seoul, at 2:35 p.m. after several stopovers for refueling following their departure from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona last Friday, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said.

The date for their full operational deployment has yet to be decided, but a ceremony to publicize their introduction is expected to take place next month or in May, DAPA said. The two fighters are among the six F-35As that the Air Force had received in the U.S. until last year.

A total of 10 F-35A fighters, manufactured by the U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin, are set to arrive in South Korea by the end of this year. In 2014, Seoul decided to purchase 40 F-35As for deployment through 2021 at a cost of 7.4 trillion won (US$6.5 billion).

"We expect (the F-35As) to enhance the Air Force's operational capabilities in response to the neighboring countries' introduction of stealth fighters, and to strengthen the readiness posture against threats from all directions," DAPA chief Wang Jung-hong said.

Brig. Gen. Lee Young-su, the chief of the 17th Fighter Wing, led the ceremony welcoming the arrival of the fighters. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lee Wang-keun also attended it.

In 2017, South Korean Air Force pilots began receiving training on the operation of the fifth-generation warplane.

The F-35A fighter is expected to serve as a centerpiece of South Korea's strategic targeting scheme against potential enemy forces. It can fly at a top speed of Mach 1.8 and carry top-of-the line weapons systems, such as joint direct attack munitions.

The F-35A is the fighter's air force variant, while the F-35B and F-35C are for marine and aircraft carrier-based operations, respectively.

Amid diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea and foster lasting peace on the peninsula, Pyongyang has responded sensitively to Seoul's new fighter deployment plan.

In January, the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North's ruling Workers' Party, warned that the introduction of the F-35As could spoil the atmosphere of efforts to improve inter-Korean military ties.

An F-35A stealth fighter jet arrives at an air base in Cheongju, 140 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on March 29, 2019.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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