The United States is flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers on training missions over South Korea, Pentagon officials said Monday.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said one B-52 flew over South Korea on March 8, and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a visit to Seoul that another bomber mission is scheduled for Tuesday.
B-52 bombers are capable of launching nuclear-armed cruise missiles, but Little said those participating in the Korean exercise are not armed with nuclear weapons.
The use of Air Force warplanes as part of an annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise called Foal Eagle is not unusual. But the Pentagon used the occasion to draw attention to the role B-52 bombers play as part of an American nuclear “umbrella” over South Korea and Japan, both of which feel threatened by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“We’re deeply concerned about North Koreans behavior and rhetoric,” Little told reporters.
In a more dramatic demonstration of that concern, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday announced that the U.S. is beefing up its defenses against a potential North Korean missile attack on the U.S. He said that over the coming four years the Pentagon will add 14 missile interceptors to the 26 it already has in place at Fort Greely, Alaska, at an estimated cost of $1 billion.
Hagel cited three recent developments in North Korea that prompted the Obama administration to act, including a nuclear test in February deemed reckless by Washington and condemned by the U.N. Security Council.
Hagel also cited Pyongyang’s launch in December of a rocket that put a satellite into space and demonstrated mastery of some of the technologies needed to produce a long-range nuclear missile.