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An Air Force F-16 takes off at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, during Max Thunder 17, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The U.S. and South Korea launched joint air force drills Monday, April 23, 2019, as an alternative to Max Thunder.
An Air Force F-16 takes off at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, during Max Thunder 17, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The U.S. and South Korea launched joint air force drills Monday, April 23, 2019, as an alternative to Max Thunder. (Marcus Fichtl/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea have launched joint air force drills, officials said Tuesday, as the allies maintain efforts to keep military exercises low-key amid nuclear talks with the North.

South Korean military officials said the two-week exercise began Monday as an alternative to Max Thunder, which has been one of the Air Force’s largest annual exercises on the divided peninsula.

The U.S. military has canceled or scaled-back several joint exercises since President Donald Trump first announced he was “ending the war games” following his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12.

That has raised concerns about readiness, with some 28,500 American troops based in South Korea as well as other forces in the region.

The top U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams, expressed worries himself during his confirmation hearing before he assumed command in November.

However, he expressed confidence in the U.S. military posture earlier this year, saying the military has adjusted to the administration’s decision with dozens of combined field training exercises.

The Air Force drills being conducted by South Korea, the United States and Australia involved dozens of warplanes, including fighter jets, according to South Korean military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The Air Force is holding the consolidated training of combined flight formation forces to boost combined operations capabilities,” the defense ministry said in a text message, declining to provide more details. U.S. officials did not immediately comment on the exercise.

North Korea has always hated the annual military exercises, which it considers a rehearsal for an invasion. State-run media have continued to denounce the drills.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamelchang.kyong@stripes.com

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