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By Song Sang-ho
POCHEON, South Korea, May 25 (Yonhap) -- In the midst of persistent North Korean military threats, South Korea and the United States conducted their largest-ever combined live-fire drills Thursday, driving home an impactful message: The alliance will only grow stronger to achieve "peace through strength."
The Combined Joint Live-Fire Exercise, the first of its kind in six years, took place at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, just 25 kilometers south of the inter-Korean border, to mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance and the 75th anniversary of the founding of South Korea's armed forces.
The 130-minute exercise program came as Pyongyang has been charging ahead with its menacing armament projects, including those to develop underwater nuclear attack drones, tactical nuclear arms and a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile, to name a few.
The massive showcase of the allies' landpower and aerial prowess fell in line with President Yoon Suk Yeol's oft-repeated mantra of peace through overwhelming military superiority as opposed to "fake peace that hinges on the other party's good will."
In the run-up to the exercise, the North vented its exasperation through its state media, saying the "dangerous war exercise" against "a nuclear power" is "just sheer bullshit."
For Thursday's drills, the allies mobilized some 2,500 troops from 71 units and about 600 military assets.
South Korea deployed a wide range of ground and air assets, including K2 battle tanks, K21 armored vehicles, radar-evading F-35A fighters, E-737 Peace Eye early warning aircraft, AH-64E Apache and AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters.
Also at the exercise were surveillance and self-destructing drones, K9A1 and K55A1 self-propelled howitzers, and multiple launch rocket systems. The U.S. Forces Korea deployed M270A1 multiple launch rocket systems, M1135 nuclear, biological, chemical, reconnaissance vehicles and Apache helicopters.
"While preparing for the exercise, I sensed the overwhelming power through the shining eyes and will of South Korean and U.S. troops exuding overflowing confidence, and the solidarity of the united alliance," Lt. Gen. Kim Sung-min, the commander of the South Korean Army's 5th Corps., said.
The exercise was divided into two parts: one highlighting the allies' readiness to respond to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats and repel its possible attack, and the other demonstrating their counterattack capabilities.
The exercise represented South Korea's much-vaunted campaign in progress to harness cutting-edge technologies in battle operations, as seen in a "manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T)" platform mixing both conventional and unmanned military assets.
In the opening event, a constellation of small drones rose into the sky, making a formation of letters saying "peace through strength" in Korean.
Watching the spectacle were some 2,000 people, including 300 South Koreans invited as "citizen observers."
The first part of the exercise proceeded under the scenario of North Korea opening fire with its long-range artillery pieces, which put the greater Seoul area within range, and launching an offensive along the land border.
K9A1 howitzers and other artillery pieces fired a barrage of rounds, creating a roaring sound and vibrations across the training field. Dark plumes of smoke billowing from preset hillside targets highlighted the success of the fire mission.
Three KF-16 jets then streaked overhead and dropped flares in a strike package, followed by the group flight of three FA-50 light attack jets. They all struck intended targets accurately.
The second part of the exercise, codenamed "Operation Invincible Freedom," centered on counterattack operations aimed at stamping out remaining North Korean threats.
F-35As, Apache helicopters, multiple rocket launchers and other formidable assets were deployed to underscore their firepower. South Korea's high-tech Army TIGER unit also appeared for fire missions, while the MUM-T platform featuring Apache helicopters and cutting-edge drones moved in for air support in collaboration with Air Force participants.
The exercise ended with South Korean and U.S. troops firing rounds from 105-mm howitzers into the air to create a V-line trail of smoke to mark their victory.
"I got to have this belief that our military can fight off any kind of North Korean attack based on overwhelming power," Noh Seung-uk, a descendant of a Korean War veteran, was quoted as saying.
At the training field, the South Korean military set up an exhibition displaying a series of its weapons systems, including a K9A1 howitzer, K2 battle tank, Cheonma surface-to-air missile, TPQ-74K counter-battery radar, Haeryong ship-launched attack missile and TAURUS air-to-surface cruise missile, according to the defense ministry.
The allies plan to stage the combined exercise four more times next month -- on June 2, 7, 12 and 15.