Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC), has proposed relocating CFC from Seoul to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of Seoul. This relocation may challenge U.S. and ROK forces to maintain the strength and organizational effectiveness of the command.
CFC has resided in Seoul since its establishment in 1978. Its role is to deter, and if necessary defeat, outside aggression against the ROK. The issue of its location has never received the rigorous attention required as part of the process of restructuring the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, which has been underway since the initial proposals in 2003 for the Yongsan Relocation Plan and Wartime Operational Control (OPCON) Transition Plan.
At one point early on, there were plans for CFC to move to Camp Humphreys. At another point, there was a proposal to replace CFC with two warfighting commands, one under the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff as the supported command and a U.S. supporting command called Korea Command (KORCOM). Finally, in 2017, the alliance decided CFC would remain intact and would eventually be commanded by a Korean general. Gen. Abrams’ predecessor, Gen. Vincent Brooks, stated it would remain in Seoul.
One reason for Gen. Abrams’ proposal to relocate CFC to Camp Humphreys is the distance U.S. personnel would have to travel to Seoul and the potential separation from their families. However, the same challenge would face ROK personnel if they have to travel from Seoul to Camp Humphreys.
While family considerations are important, the larger concern is the effectiveness of the combined command. The key question for the alliance’s leadership is how to best organize, train, equip, and locate the combined command to optimize its ability to meet the mission requirements established by the Military Committee.
Whether the command is located in Camp Humphreys or Seoul, there are going to be significant challenges in sustaining readiness due to physical separation. It may result in an atrophy of capabilities and gradual decline in readiness, especially with the reduction and elimination of large command headquarters level exercises.
The uncertainty regarding CFC’s location may resurrect the old proposal for separate U.S. and ROK warfighting commands. If implemented, this would result in the violation of one of the basic principles of war, unity of command. It would also be well-received by North Korea, which seeks to split the ROK/U.S. alliance. At a minimum, dual commands could put the alliance on the path to reduced readiness and even the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces if readiness cannot be sufficiently maintained.
Given the money already spent on the Yongsan Relocation Plan and the government decisions already made on the use of land, it is unlikely there can be a compromise solution that locates CFC at a reasonable distance from both Seoul and Camp Humphreys. However, Gen. Abrams’ proposal presents an opportunity. Now is the time for the alliance to ask the hard questions about the future of deterrence and warfighting in Korea.
If a combined command is determined to be best, ROK and U.S. leaders should conduct a thorough assessment of the command. It should identify the inevitable challenges to readiness by locating CFC in either Seoul or Camp Humphreys and the potential unity of command issues associated with multiple commands at different locations. By mitigating those challenges, the alliance can remain strong and focused on deterring and defeating the threat from the North.
David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also contributes to FDD’s Center for Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.