The massive week-long simulated air warfare exercise will include no less than a total of 230 aircraft including six stealthy top-of-the-line Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor  air superiority fighters and six—possibly as many as 18 —Lockheed Martin F-35  Joint Strike Fighters. While the exercise comes on the heels of North Korea’s missile test, the timing of the wargames is purely coincidence. U.S. and Korean forces have been preparing the for Vigilant Ace for weeks.
"In the event we need to help defend our 51 million Korean allies, I need to be sure the 51st Fighter Wing is synchronized with the Combined-Joint force,” Col. William D. Betts, commander of the Osan, Korea-based 51st Fighter Wing—which flies the venerable Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon—said in a statement.
“Vigilant Ace is an opportunity for us to do just that; focus on getting smarter, faster and more capable than we were yesterday while we generate combat airpower and strengthen the alliance."
The focus of the Vigilant Ace exercise is bilateral training on mutual support procedures and further improving the understanding and trust between the two nations’ military forces in the event of war—which under present circumstances is not an abstract concept.
“The threat here on the peninsula is very real, and countering that threat needs to be in the forefront of our minds,” Betts said.
“My biggest expectation for the Wing is to remove any 'exercise' mindset from the equation and maximize the realism of every response. We will ensure we have no regrets if we find ourselves executing contingency operations.”
The joint U.S. and South Korean aerial armada includes American aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and the Marine Corps. F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15 Eagles, F/A-18 Hornets and EA-18G Growlers will be flying alongside South Korean F-15K Slam Eagles and F-4 Phantom IIs during the wargame under realistic wartime conditions. Indeed, the one of the focuses of this year’s Vigilant Ace is on simulated strikes on mock North Korean nuclear facilities and nuclear forces including the missiles and their transporter erector launchers according to a report from the South Korean Yonhap wire-service .
The White House might certainly consider sort of attempt to launch a disarming strike against North Korea.
“If necessary, the president and the United States will have to take care of it, because he has said he's not going to allow this murderous, rogue regime to threaten the United States with the—with the most—destructive weapons on the planet.”
The Trump Administration does not seem to consider the North Korean dictator to be a rational actor, and therefore, seems to believe he cannot be deterred.
“I don't think you or anybody else is willing to bet the farm, or a U.S. city on the decision-making—rational decision-making of Kim Jong Un,” McMaster said.
“And as you know, this is a regime that's never met a weapon that it hasn't proliferated. It's a regime who's said what it—clearly what its intentions are. Its intentions are to use that weapon for nuclear blackmail, and then, to, quote, you know, ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner.”
The danger, because of the bellicose statements emanating from the White House, is that North Korea could easily mistake an exercise as a prelude to an actual attack. During the Cold War, Soviet doctrine—which North Korean doctrine is based on—called for snap exercises to provide cover for mobilization efforts to go to war. That led to events such as the Able Archer incident in 1983 where the Kremlin mistook a NATO exercise as preparations to launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union—the closest Washington and Moscow ever came to World War III. Precautions must be taken to ensure Pyongyang does not make a similar error that results in an accidental nuclear war.