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Members from US and Republic of Korea militaries man the Hardened Theater Air Control Center, at Osan AB, South Korea, during the first day of Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Aug. 17, 2015. Air Force photo by A1C John Linzmeier.

​The US and South Korea began the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise on Aug. 17 amid heightened tensions on the peninsula. The yearly command and control exercise simulates defense of the South from external attack, according to US Forces Korea and US Pacific Air Forces officials. Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2015, which runs to Aug. 28, features elements of all US and Republic of Korea services, as well as participants from seven United Nations Command states, including Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, New Zealand, and the U​K. An estimated 33,000 US and allied personnel are participating. North Korea threatened the "strongest military counteraction" in response to the exercise, reported Voice of America. Tensions increased on the peninsula after two South Korean soldiers were injured by landmine explosions while patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, according to VOA. These exercises are critical to "improving alliance capabilities and meeting our security commitments there in the region and on the peninsula," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Aug. 17.