August 27, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Commander in Korea Determined to Maintain Readiness Despite Suspended Exercises

August 27, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Commander in Korea Determined to Maintain Readiness Despite Suspended Exercises

The commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command, Gen. Vincent Brooks, told reporters last week he was determined to keep his troops at a high level of readiness despite President Trump’s unexpected cancellation of upcoming combined U.S.-South Korean military exercises. “If we’re not going to train the same way, then we’ll train a different way – but we’re going to remain ready,” Brooks said. Late August is when U.S. and South Korean forces normally hold the annual exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

At the press conference that followed his meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Trump surprised everyone, including the U.S. military and its Republic of Korea (ROK) ally, by announcing the U.S. “will be stopping” combined exercises. The president effectively adopted the North Korean narrative, condemning the “war games” as “very provocative” because North Korea is “right next door” (and Trump added his own view that they are expensive at an estimated $14 million). This represents a major concession to the most important demand of the Kim family regime: an end to Washington’s “hostile policy” as exemplified by the ROK/U.S. combined exercises.

While supporting the president’s political objective of reducing tension and building confidence, General Brooks’ combined forces must still be prepared to meet any contingency, including a deliberate attack from the North. Brooks said that no one gave him an order to be “unready” and “[n]o one told me to stand down.”

The timing of ROK-U.S. exercises reflects the training schedule of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), which generally consists of two cycles, one in the summer and one in the winter. The nearly simultaneous ROK/U.S. Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises coincide with the end of the North’s winter training cycle, when it has raised its offensive military readiness to the highest state and the frozen ground is optimal for an attack. The U.S. and ROK conduct Ulchi Freedom Guardian at the end of August, shortly after they rotate their forces, in order to ensure all new commanders and staff train immediately on the plans for defense against a North Korean attack. This establishes the baseline readiness for the entire year.

This year’s cancellation of Ulchi Freedom Guardian creates a clear challenge that General Brooks is taking steps to mitigate. As he acknowledged, the cancellation means that training “won’t be the same as a large, everyone-in-the-game-at-once collective experience.”

While the two traditional purposes of ROK/U.S. exercises are to sustain readiness and broadcast a clear message of unity, strength, and resolve to Pyongyang, the president chose instead to deliver a message of reconciliation by suspending Ulchi Freedom Guardian. The ROK/U.S. alliance may consider the suspension of future exercises in 2019 and reserves the right to re-start them at any time, both to ensure adequate readiness and if North Korea does not negotiate in good faith.

For now, the ROK and U.S. should allow commanders to conduct the necessary training and ensure sufficient readiness without the typical public pronouncements. If Washington and Seoul decide they want to end the alleged “hostile policy,” one recommendation to consider is to do away with the “named exercises” (Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Key Resolve/Foal Eagle) altogether and simply conduct unnamed routine training in summer and winter training cycles to match NKPA training. This can provide the opportunity to support the political objective to reduce tension without compromising readiness.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and former Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @davidmaxwell161.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


North Korea