A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II photographed during flight training over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II photographed during flight training over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. (Andrew Lee/U.S. Air Force)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — South Korea agreed this month to purchase 20 additional F-35A Lightning II fighter jets to respond to “power imbalances” stemming from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, according to a news release Wednesday from the Ministry of National Defense procurement agency.

The additional F-35As will have “significantly improved performance,” such as data encryption, over the approximately 40 F-35As already in South Korea’s air force, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said in the release.

The deal was finalized earlier in December; the new F-35As are expected to be operational by 2027, the administration said.

The administration in March proposed buying 20 fighter jets from the United States for nearly $2.9 billion. In addition to serving as a deterrent against North Korean threats, the new F-35As could fill the void left by jets that are undergoing maintenance, the ministry said at the time.

The U.S. State Department on Sept. 13 approved the sale of up to 25 F-35As and related equipment to South Korea for around $5.06 billion, according to a news release from the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency. 

The sale will improve South Korea’s “capability to meet current and future threats by providing credible defense capability to deter aggression in the region and ensure interoperability with U.S. forces,” the agency said.

Interoperability is a term used by militaries to describe the ability of one nation’s forces to use another’s training methods and equipment.

The State Department also approved the sale of several F-35 munitions, including 39 AIM-120C-8 advanced medium range air-to-air missiles, to South Korea for around $271 million on Dec. 1, according to a separate release.

South Korea began receiving F-35As for its air force in 2019 after agreeing to a $7 billion deal with the United States.

The fifth-generation aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin comes in three variants: the F-35A conventional takeoff-and-landing, F-35B short takeoff and vertical-landing and the F-35C designed for aircraft carriers.

U.S. and South Korean F-35As took to the skies for aerial drills earlier this year. On Nov. 15, U.S. F-35Bs, and F-16 Fighting Falcons flew alongside South Korean F-35As and F-15K Slam Eagles to escort a U.S. B-52H Stratofortress bomber from Seoul to the Yellow Sea in an airpower demonstration.

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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