Major Tara O is an Assistant Professor at the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Government.
The delay of the wartime operational control (OPCON) transfer from April 2012 to December 2015 provides additional time to carefully consider the OPCON issue in the context of the two presidents’ 2009 shared vision about the future of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance.
When the United States and South Korea reached the OPCON transfer agreement in 2007, the Roh Moo-hyun administration viewed the transfer as a sovereignty issue. Against the backdrop of latent anti-Americanism in South Korea, then U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw the OPCON agreement in terms of global posture requirements of the U.S. military. Neither side seriously considered military readiness or required preparation time as factors that would drive this fundamental shift in responsibilities and influence the capability and commitment essential for deterrence.
Since the election of Lee Myung-bak, the U.S.-ROK relationship has taken a dramatically different turn. Presidents Obama and Lee emphasized close cooperation and coordination through their June 2009 announcement of a Joint Vision for the Alliance. This vision emphasized the importance of the security relationship while also broadening the scope of alliance cooperation to include economic and social issues and regional and global challenges. A shared vision and cordial relations based on enduring friendship and common values provide exactly the right foundation to guide the implementation of new forms of institutional cooperation designed to ensure that the alliance is sustainable.
A roadmap for this alliance transformation is outlined in the new “Strategic Alliance 2015” plan, an outcome of the first-ever U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting (or “2+2 meeting”) held this July in Seoul. The plan encompasses not only OPCON transition—with the attendant ROK capabilities to lead the war fight—but also consolidation of U.S. bases into two hubs, tour normalization, and management of U.S. forces in South Korea within broader, world-wide mission requirements.
The OPCON transition plan envisions South Korea as taking the lead in defense against North Korea as well as in other operational plan requirements. The ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) will lead war fighting while the U.S. Korea Command (KORCOM) will assume a supporting command, and the current U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) will dissolve. As the transition is reexamined, it is important to ensure that the combined capability and synergy remain in the new structure. The show of commitment to the alliance must also be visible and consistent throughout the transition to send the message of deterrence to North Korea.
A key principle of war is unity of command, which has been successfully applied to many alliances and coalitions in the past as an attempt to reconcile the differences in geography, functions, services, and coalition. Another important principle of war is simplicity. Carl von Clauswitz observed how the simplest things are difficult in war, accumulating to produce friction, which complicates war fighting.
U.S.-ROK CFC provides both the unity of command and simplicity, serving as a war fighting headquarters during combined operations. The OPCON transition plan should incorporate these crucial principles into the new command and control structure while ensuring combined capability, including combined systems of communication and coordination. Furthermore, this combined capability should not be divided into separate U.S. and ROK capabilities but be seamlessly bridged to create synergy. For instance, the added effectiveness, interoperability, and relations built from co-location and common daily practices that existed under the CFC should not be lost.
South Korea needs a single ground component command that is able to coordinate closely with air and sea components. These components would report to a single war fighting command, the ROK JCS. It is important to ensure that the Joint Force Commander is not overtasked with duties other than war fighting. The ROK components should also be able to coordinate closely with U.S. counterparts.
In crisis management, stronger integration is needed between the Ministry of Defense and the JCS and among the services. Cohesion among army, air force, navy, and the marine corps in all stages of the military process are essential for enhanced capability and execution. The United States learned this lesson the hard way during Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, which failed to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, largely due to the lack of integration and coordination among services. Cohesion will enhance South Korean military capability and will require a change in culture among services and strong leadership.
After the sinking of Cheonan, President Lee created a new Commission for National Security Review to reexamine South Korea’s national security strategy. The commission is carefully considering a few dozen initiatives, including the conscription service duration, crisis management, and integration among services. Specifically, the commission will recommend that the mandatory military service be restored to twenty-four months, recognizing the degraded military readiness and overall troop strength resulting from a declining birthrate and the shortening of service duration to eighteen months by the Roh administration, which was aimed to reduce total ROK troop numbers from 500,000 to 190,000. While the new initiatives will increase South Korean military capability, the ROK National Assembly must also support such initiatives by approving the appropriate budget.
One aspect of the Strategic Alliance 2015 is the realignment and relocation of U.S. Forces Korea. These efforts began with the 2002 Land Partnership Plan (LPP), which closed, and is closing, many small U.S. Army camps and posts. The LPP helps the United States restructure its posture and become more efficient through consolidation of U.S. force presence around two hubs, Daegu and Osan Air Base-Garrison Humphreys, south of Seoul. Yet another plan, the 2004 Yongsan Relocation Plan, deals specifically with the relocation of U.S. forces from Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul mostly to Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. Originally, CFC headquarters would move from Yongsan, but with the OPCON transition, it would be KORCOM, the U.S. element, that would relocate. Synchronizing the timing of OPCON transfer and the Yongsan relocation is yet another issue for consideration.
Tour normalization is another component of Strategic Alliance 2015. Currently, the tour is one to two years depending on whether the military members are accompanied by families. Tour normalization adds an additional year and increases the number of families that can be brought to South Korea. It implies a reduction in personnel turnover, which minimizes the loss in knowledge and the time needed to relearn the military process, and also helps build stronger relationships with ROK counterparts while lessening the stress on the families. Longer tours demonstrate greater U.S. commitment through long-term presence, which helps deter aggression. However, with normalized tours, the military may be tasked to deploy away from the Korean Peninsula, which could negate some of the benefits of such an initiative. Thus, the impact of tour normalization should be carefully examined in terms of ensuring deterrence.
Strategic Alliance 2015 incorporates key transformation issues to promote a successful transition to a new military alliance geared for the twenty-first century. Shared vision and values should paint the background as the two allies approach the U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting in October 2010.