2013-09-01 By Richard Weitz
As events heat up in the Middle East, Asia remains a primary focus for American foreign policy. The next few months will see the agenda filled with a number of critical issues, which need to be dealt with in order for the US and its allies to shape strategic opportunities in the region.
In Korea, changing global security threats and requirements, the improving conventional weaponry of U.S. and South Korean forces, and other factors have led to the mutual decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
In addition, the United States and South Korea are restructuring their command relationships, with the Republic of Korea (ROK) gaining operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces in wartime as well as peacetime.
Although the United States sees the move as upgrading the ROK’s status and underscoring U.S. confidence in the ROK’s improving military capabilities, many South Koreans interpret the realignment as reflecting U.S. eagerness to reduce its ROK-related commitments to reallocate U.S. defense resources to higher security priorities.
They worry that these moves could cause the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to misperceive a decline in the U.S. willingness to defend them against a North Korean attack.
Some South Koreans even believe that the U.S. decisions could contribute to a slippery slope that ends in the alliance’s dissolution.
The 2010 ROK Defense White Paper breaks down the OPCON Transition into six tasks:
- Establish two independent and mutually complementary theater-level Combatant Commands
- Ensure an efficient and comprehensive supported-supporting command relationship between ROK and U.S. units and operations
- Develop operational plans through a joint planning system and establish a new operational plan for post-wartime OPCON Transition
- Construct a system that allows the Korean JCS to lead theater operations and an Alliance Korean Joint Command Control System for joint use
- Prepare a foundation for training exercises for pre- and post-OPCON Transition by constructing new opposition force simulation facilities, after-action review teams, and wargame models
- Provide the personnel, material and legal foundation needed to construct the new combined defense system and establish a joint verification structure to confirm that the transition and the development of mission execution capabilities are meeting their benchmarks. After OPCON occurs, the USFK will change its name to the Korea Command, when it will become a supporting command to the ROK forces as well as engage in extra-peninsula operations.
The ROK armed forces should be able to fulfill these missions, but one challenge may be proposals to cut the length of conscription without making compensatory increases in the size of the ROK reserve components.
The ROK military consists of 650,000 active duty personnel as well as 3 million paramilitary and 4.5 million reserve forces. The ROK Army (ROKA) has 522,000 active-duty personnel, while the ROK Navy (ROKN) has 68,000 and the ROK Air Force (ROKAF) has 65,000. The country relies on universal conscription.
Yet, service in the Army and Marines was recently reduced from 26 to 21 months, whereas the Navy now requires 22 months and the Air Force 24 months. The new ROK government has proposed to shorten these periods even further. Former active duty personnel only have a three-day annual reserve service obligation thereafter, until they reach the age of 33.
The number of ROK forces will decline due to demographic trends as well — especially the aging of the population. Unless the planned conscription reductions are cancelled, South Korea may not have enough troops to reunify the Peninsula when the DPRK collapses.
Although the Pentagon will do its best, the declining number of ROK troops is an invitation for Chinese forces to move in and establish a military exclusion zone deep into the DPRK, providing a refugee for escaping DPRK leaders.
ROK defense analysts have become aware of North Korea’s growing cyber capabilities as well.
The DPRK has already been detected trying to jam GPS signals. The ROK relies on GPS for unit navigation, operation of unmanned assets, and weapons targeting and guidance. In addition to hardening individual GPS receivers against electromagnetic and signals interference, ROK efforts to enhance the robustness and quality of GPS signals will be undertaken in conjunction with the U.S. Defense Department, which controls the GPS network and the distribution of its signals.
The United States and South Korea are contemplating extending their security partnership into the cyber realm. At the October 2012 44th annual US-ROK Security Consultative meeting, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that, “We must ensure that this alliance stays ahead of the cyber threat.” In early 2010, the ROK created a Cyber Warfare Command Center in reaction to increasingly sophisticated distributed denial of service attacks since 2009. The ROK National Intelligence Service and the Defense Security Command are developing South Korea’s military cyber capabilities.
Another issue is the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees in East Asia.
One of the issues that the newly inaugurated South Korean President, Park Geun-hye will need to address is the demands of a growing number of members of her own party for either the United States to return tactical nuclear weapons to the South or for the ROK to develop its own nuclear arsenal. These lawmakers have become convinced by the February 12 North Korean nuclear test that the DPRK is determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal, so that they believe the ROK needs a similar nuclear capability to deter potential DPRK military threats.
There are similar advocates of developing a nuclear weapons capacity in Japan.
The new Park administration has not commented in any detail on the new U.S. missile defense architecture. But its members, many of whom served in the previous South Korean government under President Lee, are expected to continue cooperating with the United States on developing a national ROK BMD system but not participating in the regional missile defense architecture the United States is constructing in partnership with other Asian countries.
For now, the United States and South Korea are considering at most a joint system that would integrate the ROK’s Air and Missile Defense Cell (AMD-Cell) in Osan with the U.S. Forces Korea’s Patriot air-defense missile system.
But then it would be difficult — and costly in wasted resources–to create a firewall that would insulate that joint system from other U.S. BMD assets outside South Korea. It would be more effective for South Korea to pool its limited resources with the United States and its other Asian BMD allies in return for acquiring more advanced missile defense systems from them.
The more sophisticated SM-3 interceptors that are being deployed by Japan and the United States would give South Korea greater capacity to intercept DPRK missile launches during the boost and midflight phase, effectively extending the window of opportunity to target DPRK missiles.
Meanwhile, Japan and the United States will revise their bilateral defense cooperation guidelines later this year.
The two governments need to consider the following issues during these talks:
How should U.S. and Japanese authorities best protect critical transportation, communication, and other networks and nodes that the U.S. Army will need to support missions in Korea and other Asian contingencies?
How can the U.S. Army strengthen Japan-South Korean military ties notwithstanding popular animosities between the two nations?
To what extent will the decision to base a second X-Band radar in Japan require changes in the U.S. Army’s deployments, spending, logistics, and other processes?
What lessons can we learn and apply from the joint Japan-U.S. mission in Iraq, which saw thousands of Ground Self-Defense Forces serve in Samawah during the 2004-2006 period, to possible future joint peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions?
How can the Pentagon Army leverage the Japanese military’s recent experience in managing natural disasters and nuclear, chemical, and biological threats?
Should US Reservists and National Guard members spend more time on rotation in Japan to enhance the credibility of U.S. security guarantees and help Japan strengthen its reserve components?
In short, the challenges are deep in the Pacific region and require significant US attention and innovation to get the job done.
Editor’s Note: This Fall we are publishing a book with Praeger publishers which looks at how to shape air superiority in the Pacific for the 21st century.
An early look at part of the argument can be found in our new version of Three Dimensional Warriors: