- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets can fly to North Korea in minutes from this base 48 miles south of the demilitarized zone. Across the border are hundreds of North Korean artillery systems aimed at Seoul, and missiles capable of hitting Japan, Hawaii and possibly the U.S. mainland.

North Korea’s recent tests of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, along with its continuing buildup of mobile artillery, highlight the importance of air power in deterring Pyongyang by giving the United States a way to strike movable targets that appear increasingly threatening.

The South Korean and U.S. armies still would play a critical role in any fight breaking the armistice that effectively ended the 1950-53 Korean War. But U.S. Air Force officials say their planes are particularly suited to destroying North Korean weapons that would threaten South Korea as well as the United States and its allies.

“Air power is exceptionally important in the Korean fight,” Gen. Paul V. Hester, the Pacific Air Forces commander, said on a recent trip to South Korea from his Hawaii headquarters. “Air power takes care of the deep targets in our business.”

Washington is counting on diplomacy to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, but Gen. Hester said that if fighting broke out, U.S. and South Korean planes would fly close air support sorties to assist their two nations’ armies and “go deep” to strike artillery tubes that threaten Seoul and surrounding areas.

Analysts say North Korea has moved more than 500 long-range artillery systems, including at least 300 that could target metropolitan Seoul, to just north of the demilitarized zone over the past decade.

Gen. Hester said his planes also likely would head further into the North to strike the second echelon of North Korean troops that would be moving south if fighting erupted.

The United States keeps about 60 F-16 fighter jets and about 20 A-10 Warthog ground attack planes at its two bases in South Korea. It also has an unspecified number of U-2 spy planes on the peninsula. About 7,500 airmen fly and maintain the planes and support the air crews.

The United States also has forces at three air bases in Japan and one on the U.S. territory of Guam that could be sent to South Korea within hours if needed.

In recent years, the Air Force has been rotating bombers — B-2s, B-1s and B-52s — and F-15 fighter jets through Guam to plug holes left when planes from other Pacific bases have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. A specialized bomber like the B-2 likely would be required to take out any of North Korea’s nuclear or missile facilities, analysts say.

North Korea still has a 1.2 million-member army but has lost tanks and armored vehicles because it hasn’t been able to maintain the aging equipment. It also hasn’t significantly upgraded its air force since the 1980s. A fuel shortage also means North Korean pilots may get only 20 hours of flight time each year.

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