33 aircraft including F-35As shown in front of North Korea’s eyes

Illustrating their military prowess as a clear message to North Korea, South Korea paraded 33 fighter jets – including F-35As, KF-16s, F-15Ks, and F-4Es – in a striking line-up known as an “elephant walk” at the Suwon Air Force Base. This display marked the climax of the annual joint South Korean-American Freedom Shield exercise. 

33 aircraft including F-35As shown in front of North Korea's eyes
Photo credit: ROKAF / Twitter

Reports from local media outlets claimed that each aircraft in the “elephant walk” was fully loaded with weapons. The spectacle took place on a Friday, just one day after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, presided over an artillery firing exercise, laying the groundwork for regular combat readiness. Kim Jong-un attributed the looming specter of a ‘North Korean invasion’ to the joint military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States. 

As reported by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, it was announced that “all artillery units are primed to deliver swift and relentless strikes as soon as real warfare arises.”

F-4Es led the “Elephants”

Interestingly, the choreography of military aircraft was spearheaded by a fleet of eight F-4E Phantoms. These stalwarts of the skies are expected to retire in June, after dedicating countless years to service. First arriving on the scene in 1969, the Air Force acquired an early variation of the Phantom, which quickly became the principal fighter until the emergence of the KF-16 in 1994. 

Did you know that the South Korean F-4E Phantom is an iteration of the universally recognized F-4 Phantom II? McDonnell Aircraft initially developed this supersonic jet interceptor and fighter bomber for the United States Navy. This titanic aircraft can accommodate two personnel and operates seamlessly in any weather. 

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

The F-4E Phantom variant, to be specific, is armed with the most sophisticated technology. It features an integrated M61 Vulcan cannon for close combat scenarios. Its elongated nose houses a potent radar system, making it an adversary you would not want to confront in an air-to-air skirmish. Over its illustrious lifetime, South Korea’s F-4E Phantoms have received multiple enhancements to boost their prowess in battle. These include enhanced avionics, radar components, and weapon systems that ensure their continued status as a formidable force, despite the advent of more advanced aerial crafts.

The Elephant Walk

An ‘Elephant Walk’ is a phrase originated from military aviation, which denotes a substantial number of aircraft taxiing pre-departure. The image of these airplanes in a row, each following the other, closely resembles a parade of elephants, nose-to-tail – hence the name. 

The genesis of the term ‘Elephant Walk’ can be traced back to the World War II era when allied bombers, often comprising 1,000 aircraft, orchestrated missions. These clusters of planes would rally in a single-file runway formation, reflecting the sight of elephants trudging toward a watering hole. 

The motivation behind conducting an ‘Elephant Walk’ is twofold. Primarily, it is an exhibition of an air force’s capability and readiness to swiftly roll out a substantial fleet of aircraft. Concurrently, it serves as a blatant display of power, acting as a deterrent by showcasing to potential threats the military’s potential to promptly assemble and deploy an impressive contingent of aircraft. 

While the ‘Elephant Walk’ presents a stunning visual, the underlying logistical reality is fraught with challenges. It mandates meticulous coordination and clear communication among the pilots and ground crew to facilitate the secure and smooth movement of all aircraft. Another constraint is the vast expanse of runway space it demands, making it feasible only at airfields with ample capacity.

Tension

There’s always a high-voltage environment when North and South Korea perform their military exercises. Take this recent Thursday for example, where South Korea, backed by its U.S. allies, carried out extensive air force exercises. As noted by BulgarianMilitary.com, live ammunition was fired from South Korean KF-16 and FA-50 fighter jets at destroyed aerial targets. Needless to say, North Korea didn’t take kindly to this, interpreting it as a simulated aerial invasion.  

Earlier, in January, North Korea sent shockwaves by firing over 200 missiles around the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. This was reported by a South Korean news agency, which drew insights from the army’s general staff. The shocking part was the unnerving proximity of the detonations to Yeonpyeong Island, lying on the NLL [Northern Limit Line].  

The island’s residents had to undergo mandatory evacuation following this alarming incident. As a result, the South Korean military was on high alert for any potential threats. The NLL, which draws a maritime line between the contentious nations, originates from the 2018 agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang. Its primary goal was to mitigate the escalating friction between these two nations.  

North and South Korea exchanged fire - 200 versus 400 shells
Photo credit: KCNA

South Korean media later disclosed Taipei’s tit-for-tat response to this aggression, which was the firing of 400 artillery shells. The unusual sight captured on video was the double-entry shelters that house the scattered K-9s.

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