By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea's advanced F-15K fighter jets are likely to join the upcoming exercises aimed at protecting the islets of Dokdo in the East Sea, a military source said Sunday.
The move is construed as part of Seoul's hardball policy against Japan's repeated attempt to claim the islets.
The government is also considering sending marines to replace a police contingent on Dokdo to thwart Japan's territorial claim to the islets in the East Sea, sources said.
Making Dokdo habitable is one of the most effective measures to dispel Japan's repeated claim to the South Korean islets, the sources said.
The annual ``Dokdo Protection'' exercise is expected to take place twice in the second half of this year, with the first to begin as early as late this month, said the source.
The Navy's Operations Command will take charge of the drill involving the Air Force and the Korea Coast Guard, he added.
The F-15K participation is expected to help bolster the country's defense readiness on the easternmost islets, given the supersonic aircraft's long-range capability, defense experts say.
The Air Force has 34 F-15Ks, which became fully operational earlier this month. The fighter is capable of air-to-ground, air-to-air and air-to-sea missions day or night, in all weather conditions. It has a 23,000-pound payload and can fly at a maximum speed of Mach 2.3.
The aircraft has an operational radius of 1,800 kilometers and is capable of conducting missions over Dokdo for about 30 minutes, much longer than KF-16 fighters capable of carrying out operations just for eight minutes. The KF-16 has an operational radius of about 920 kilometers.
In 2002, the F-15K built by U.S. aircraft giant Boeing was selected for the 40-plane, $4.2 billion first phase of the F-X program aimed at equipping the Air Force with 120 high-tech fighters by 2020 to replace aging F-4s and F-5s.
Seoul signed the 21-plane, $2.3 billion second-phase deal with Boeing early this year.
Six F-15K fighters are scheduled to participate in a U.S.-led advanced aerial combat training exercise, called Red Flag, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, next month.