FAIRBANKS — Somewhere over the Delta Junction area Monday, a Japanese C-130 cargo plane received an escort from four South Korean F-15 fighter jets as it flew through a flurry of simulated attacks.
This exercise, and others like it last week, made history because they’re the first time Japanese and South Korean air forces have held joint training in Alaska, or anywhere, according to Lt. Col. Tom Pagano, commander of the 353rd Combat Training Squadron that plans Red Flag Alaska.
Seeing two major U.S. allies practicing together is likely to be a highlight of this year’s exercises, he said.
“The strategic nature of those two nations working together to accomplish those goals is very important,” he said. “We have allies that are now on the same sheet of music able to cooperate, integrate and face a common foe (a reference to North Korea).”
The cooperation is especially notable because although both U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan have a long history of conflict that includes 3 1/2 decades of Japanese colonial rule in Korea in the early 20th century and a territorial dispute that continues today. Individually, both nations have attended past Red Flag Alaska exercises. For this month’s Red Flag, which started August 9 and ends Friday, the Republic of Korea Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force each sent six F-15s, an air-to-air combat plane built by Boeing.
This month’s Red Flag Alaska is the only international training exercise planned for Alaska this year. Because of the sequester and military budget cuts that began in March, a May Red Flag Alaska with Canadian and British forces and a larger, American-only, training exercise known as Northern Edge was canceled.
This month’s Red Flag was about the average size for the event. Between Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, about 60 aircraft and 2,600 people are participating in this year’s training, Air Force spokesman Tim Jenkins said. The Pacific Air Forces spent about $12 million to contract for the range space and base operations for the exercise, he said.
Pagano described the participation in this month’s exercise as good in light of the budget cuts. The most visible consequence of the cuts is U.S. Air Force units stationed in Asia that had been planning to attend were not able to come, he said.
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