Air Force and South Korean F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters fly alongside each other over the Yellow Sea, July 12, 2022.

Air Force and South Korean F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters fly alongside each other over the Yellow Sea, July 12, 2022. (Trevor Gordnier/U.S. Air Force)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — South Korea’s military says it has finalized plans to purchase 20 additional F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters to defend itself against threats from North Korea.

Seoul will spend nearly $2.9 billion on the acquisition, which will bring its total number of fifth-generation jets to around 60 by 2028, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said in a news release Monday.

The purchase strengthens South Korea’s “three-axis” integrated defense strategy, according to the release. The term, coined by the Ministry of National Defense, refers to preemptive strikes on an imminent North Korean threat, an air and missile defense system and a retaliatory strike against Pyongyang.

The new fighters will provide “deterrence against omnidirectional threats and prompt incapacitation of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in an emergency,” the release said. The additional jets will fill the potential “power vacuum” caused by maintenance of existing aircraft.

South Korea’s air force already has approximately 40 F-35As, the conventional takeoff-and-landing variant of the stealth fighter. The B variant is capable of short takeoffs and vertical landing, and the C variant is designed for arrested landing on aircraft carriers. Seoul began receiving the A variant in 2019 in a $7 billion deal with manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Since then, South Korea’s F-35s have conducted aerial drills with the United States and responded to potential threats from the North with airpower demonstrations.

South Korean and U.S. F-35s from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, drilled over Seoul with a host of other military aircraft in July, the first time stealth fighters from both countries flew together in a combat exercise.

In December, Air Force F-22 Raptors and B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew in an airpower exercise with South Korean F-35s and F-15K Slam Eagles.

Roughly 80 South Korean military aircraft, including F-35s, were scrambled in November after 180 North Korean aircraft were detected by the South’s radar. The North Korean aircraft were flying in the regime’s airspace and did not appear to violate border laws, the defense ministry said at the time.

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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