(ATTN: ADDS more details in para 5, gov't plan to bring in Global Hawk aircraft in last 7 paras, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to hold a ceremony this month to mark the operational deployment of F-35A stealth fighters, officials said Tuesday.
South Korea has so far brought in 12 F-35As, beginning with two in late March, under a plan to deploy a total of 40 fifth-generation jets through 2021. By the end of this year, one more unit is to arrive here.
"We plan to hold a fielding ceremony within this month to be presided over by the Air Force chief of staff," Lt. Col. Cho Se-young told a regular briefing, adding the military is "setting up details about the event."
The upcoming ceremony means that the aircraft is capable of carrying out operations at least to a limited extent, he added.
Sources say the ceremony is scheduled to take place around next Tuesday at the Air Force's 17th Fighter Wing base in the central city of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.
"How much we publicize the event is yet to be decided. We are discussing the matter with the defense ministry, as well as the U.S. side," a military source said.
During the Armed Forces Day event in October, the Air Force showcased the next-generation fighters to the public for the first time.
The military has handled the issues in a low-key manner, sparking speculation that the government is concerned about objections from North Korea. The communist country has lashed out at South Korea for the introduction of such advanced weapons.
As a centerpiece of the country's strategic targeting scheme against potential enemy forces, the warplane is expected to boost operational capabilities and strengthen the readiness posture against threats from all directions, according to the Air Force.
The fighters can fly at a top speed of Mach 1.8 and carry top-of-the-line weapons systems, such as joint direct attack munitions.
South Korea is also scheduled to start bringing in Global Hawk unmanned aircraft this month, according to the officials.
Under the deal with the U.S. worth around US$950 million, South Korea is to introduce four units of the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).
As one of the most advanced intelligence-gathering platforms in the world, manufactured by U.S. defense company Northrop Grumman, Global Hawk is a high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle capable of performing reconnaissance missions in the air for more than 30 hours at a time.
It is also capable of distinguishing objects on the ground as small as 30 centimeters across, and the asset is expected to enhance South Korea's reconnaissance capabilities in the face of persistent threats by North Korea and further enhance interoperability between South Korea and the U.S., the officials noted.
"We are discussing with the U.S. side the schedule for their arrival. They are likely to come here in phases starting this month," a procurement agency official said.
Asked about whether there would be an event to mark its introduction, Cho from the Air Force said, "(The military) does not have any plans to make them public, as Global Hawk is a reconnaissance asset that bears strategic significance."
Instead, the official said the government is "mulling issuing a press release after the first one arrives here."
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