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US sending F-35 jets to Japan amid North Korea standoff

An F-35A aircraft assigned to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, flies during a flight to Estonia, April 25, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The US Air Force is planning to deploy as many as 12 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets to Japan over the coming days, a move that is expected to kick up tensions with North Korea.

The aircraft are expected to arrive at the US military’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Pacific Air Forces (PAF) announced, according to a Defense News report on Monday.

More than 300 airmen from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah — including pilots, maintainers and other personnel—will be accompanying the F-35As during the six-month deployment, which is also this variant of the  Joint Strike Fighter’s operational debut in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The F-35A gives the joint warfighter unprecedented global precision attack capability against current and emerging threats while complementing our air superiority fleet,” PAF Commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy said. “The airframe is ideally suited to meet our command’s obligations, and we look forward to integrating it into our training and operations.”

Speculation about a possible deployment began last week, when the F-35A variant of the stealthy aircraft went on display at the International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition in South Korean capital Seoul. The aircraft did not perform a flight then.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James had hinted before leaving the office in February that the USAF would deploy two separate “theater security packages” of F-35s to the region by the end of 2017.

The F-35As were first deployed to Europe.

The US Marine Corps has had its F-35B variants, capable of short takeoffs and landings, permanently stationed at Marine Corps Air Station in Japan’s Iwakuni since January.

North Korea tensions

The deployment comes amid a heated standoff between Washington and Pyongyang, over the latter’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons programs.

US President Donald Trump has mocked North Korean leader Kim Jung-un as “Little Rocket Man.” He also declared in his debut United Nations General Assembly speech last month that America was ready to “totally destroy” the North if necessary.

Kim in response called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” and threatened to test a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean and strike the US Pacific territory of Guam.

The US has already sent a number of warships and nuclear-capable bombers to the region to conduct military drills with Japanese and South Korean forces.

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