SEOUL, South Korea’s Air Force held a ceremony Wednesday to publicize its introduction of an aerial refueling tanker, well before the deployment of the asset aimed at expanding its area of operations.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo hosted the event for Airbus’s KC-330 tanker, which was delivered to South Korea last November under a plan to procure a total of four tankers.

The Air Force is preparing to deploy them starting in 2020.

“This aerial tanker will further strengthen our military’s capabilities to respond to threats from all directions under the shifting security conditions,” the minister said during the ceremony in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province. It was attended by lawmakers on the National Assembly’s defense committee and senior defense officers.

The ceremony was meant to demonstrate the military’s efforts to beef up its combat readiness supported by taxpayers, according to a defense official.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lee Wang-keun said that the acquisition of the asset will mark a “great turning point” in terms of the country’s airpower.

“Fighter jets will be able to extend their operational ranges and have more time for operations around Dokdo and Ieodo … The tanker will also greatly contribute to the defense of the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone,” Lee said.

Dokdo is the name of South Korea’s easternmost islets, which Japan also claims. Ieodo, a source of another territorial dispute, is a submerged rock in the overlapping exclusive economic zones of South Korea and China.

In 2015, Seoul signed a contract with Europe’s Airbus to purchase four KC-330s. In line with the procurement scheme, the Air Force launched the 261st Air Tanker Squadron in Gimhae, 450 kilometers south of Seoul, last September.

The first KC-330 arrived in South Korea last November. The Air Force plans to bring in the second in April, the third in August and the fourth in December under a plan to put the four tankers into service from July 2020.

The South Korean military has set its sights on refueling aircraft since the mid-1990s as its warplanes can currently maneuver over vulnerable areas such as Dokdo and Ieodo for about half an hour or less. With refueling, combat aircraft can operate for one more hour.

The KC-330, which can carry up 245,000 pounds of fuel, measures 60.3 meters in width and 58.8 meters in length. It can fly distances up to 15,320 kilometers, with a maximum flight altitude of 12,600 meters.

The tanker is capable of refueling up to 10 F-15ks or up to 20 KF-16s. In addition, it can carry 300 crewmembers and 47 tons of cargo.

Source: Yonhap news Agency