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Dispatching F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft to South Korea provides more lethality to the mix of American fighter planes already assigned to the peninsula — but only for the short term.

“Not in any way, shape or form is the arrival of the aircraft here related to any recent tensions on the peninsula,” 1st Lt. Heather Healy, an 8th Fighter Wing spokeswoman at Kunsan Air Base, said Wednesday.

“They are here for routine, scheduled exercises that have been in planning for quite a long time.”

The Nighthawks will fly during the Foal Eagle exercise running through April 2 — with their participation arranged in June 2002, Healy said.

Air Force officials at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the $45 million aircraft are based, said Kunsan will host “more than six” of the unique warplanes and more than 100 support personnel.

While in South Korea, Healy said, Nighthawk pilots will familiarize themselves with the Korean theater of operations and its terrain.

On March 2, several North Korean fighter aircraft shadowed an American RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft from Okinawa. Those reconnaissance flights were suspended; Air Force officials have not said if fighter aircraft would escort them when they resume.

The F-117s “are not coming here for escort missions,” Healy said. Thomas Hubbard, U.S. ambassador to South Korea, speaking in Seoul on Wednesday, said the warplanes’ arrival has “no relationship to the RC-135 aircraft.”

Harlan Ullman, a former naval officer and senior associate at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the stealths are not fighters. Their mission is pinpoint bombing.

“They’re not very good at air-to-air combat,” he said.

An Air Force fact sheet calls the F-117A Nighthawk the world’s first operational aircraft designed to exploit stealth technology. Its skin is coated with a secret, radar-absorbent material.

Constructed mostly of aluminum, the F-117A’s fuselage comprises flat panels known as facets mounted on the aircraft’s subframe. They’re engineered to reflect radar energy away from the transmitter itself, thus denying radar operators a visible “return.”

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, F-117As flew 1,300 sorties and scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq. They were the only U.S. or coalition aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad.

— T.D. Flack contributed to this report.

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