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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The U.S. Military and South Korea Must Train to Deter North Korea

Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15
DPRK Hwasong-14. Image Credit: KCNA.

ROK/U.S. combined training – routine but necessary defensive exercises – is described in the media in various ways that causes confusion among the public. With the start of the annual computer simulation command post training that is taking place from March 8 to16 it is important to place them in context and understand the how and why this training is conducted. Media outlets in Korea alternately report the “scaled” back training is to support diplomacy, prevent a North Korean response, or mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Other reports emphasize that there are no “outdoor drills.”

The idea of reducing exercises stems from the hope that North Korea will not react negatively to training and from the misguided belief that scaling them back will create the conditions for positive engagement with Pyongyang. As if to emphasize this point, the ROK Ministry of Unification said on Monday it is hoping for a “wise, flexible approach” from North Korea to the training.

The press should correctly inform the public about these exercises; the hypocrisy of North Korean rhetoric that alleges all ROK/US training is for an invasion of the North; and the importance of this training to the security of the South Korean people and protection of U.S. interests in the region. ROK and U.S. leaders should allow the training to take place and not reduce or cancel it solely out of fear of North Korean reactions.

The public should know that this training is defensive in nature. This point is important, because it refutes the North Korean regime’s lies that the training constitutes offensive preparations for a U.S.-ROK invasion of the North. In fact, these exercises aim to train the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) headquarters and its subordinate component headquarters to defend the ROK from a North Korean attack. Pyongyang’s complaints are simply hypocritical: It is the North that trains for an invasion of the South.

North Korea is not threatened by these exercises and its actions in response to them have only one objective: to drive a wedge in the ROK/U.S. alliance, with the ultimate goal of removing U.S. troops from the peninsula. If U.S. troops cannot train, they cannot effectively complete their mission. As Confucius said, “To lead untrained people to war is to throw them away.”

It is also imperative to understand the vital role the command post computer simulation training plays in readiness. Press reports have incorrectly described these computer-simulated exercises as lesser forms of training as opposed to field and live-fire combat training. While live-fire exercises do play an important role in maintaining combat readiness, they alone do not prepare the U.S.-ROK alliance to be ready to “fight tonight” in case of an attack from the north.

Tactical forces are like athletes in that they have to practice every day to maintain their skills, because training is perishable. The ROK and the U.S. military conduct field training and live fire exercises at the tactical level all year round so that they remain proficient in their ability to shoot, move, and communicate to defeat attacking North Korean forces.

The training at the CFC and component level, however, is much “more intellectual than a bayonet charge” (with apologies to T.E. Lawrence, who described irregular warfare this way). It is also necessary to prepare the Future Combined Forces Command for the wartime operational control (OPCON) transition process from a U.S. to a Korean general officer.

The military uses a concept called multi-echelon training, which means that units must conduct the right type of training at the appropriate echelon. The purpose of multi-echelon training is to train the commanders and staff at the highest levels while separately allowing the tactical forces to correctly train at the lower levels. At the higher echelon level, field training is less effective and computer simulation is more effective. When the scale of the field exercise is large, it has less value for the higher echelons than it has for the tactical forces at the lower echelons or at the “tip of the spear.” When training for the higher echelons is more effective, it is less effective for the lower echelons, and vice versa. Computer simulation offers a much more challenging and complex training experience for the higher levels.

Consider the higher echelons as Baduk (or Go) or chess players. They have to think and act strategically, providing direction to the stones or chess pieces. However, no field training can come anywhere near to replicating the complex problems the higher echelons have to solve in terms of intelligence, planning, logistics, orders, and execution. The computer simulation, run by thinking humans, provides the realistic and complex scenarios with which the higher echelons must grapple. Accordingly, no one should denigrate the command post computer simulation exercise as a lesser form of training.

The best trained tactical forces are of no value if the theater headquarters and components cannot command and control the execution of the campaign plan, integrating the full spectrum of joint and combined military capabilities, for the defense of the ROK.

In this context, the media’s claim that field training exercises are not being conducted because of the COVID risk is also misinformed. Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, the command post training is actually more dangerous in a COVID world. Thousands of ROK and U.S. military personnel at multiple command posts around South Korea are residing in bunkers, breathing recirculated air. A COVID outbreak is more likely among people working indoors in close confines than among troops in the field who are dispersed conducting military training. This is why personnel from the U.S. still have to be quarantined for 14 days upon their arrival to the region, and everyone participating has to be regularly tested.

The good news is the ROK/U.S. CFC demonstrated it is possible to conduct an effective and safe training exercise, as it conducted the last command post computer simulation training in August with no COVID outbreak.

The bottom line is that these exercises must go on because Kim Jong-un and his regime continue to pose an immense military threat to the Korean peninsula. The alliance has tested Kim Jong-un’s intentions by cancelling, postponing, and scaling back exercises throughout the last few years to support diplomatic efforts. Yet there has not been any reciprocity from Kim Jong-un. Instead the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) has continued its own training exercises at full capacity while also fully maintaining its offensively postured forces on the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It has 70 percent of the fourth largest army in the world deployed between the DMZ and Pyongyang.

Currently, the NKPA is conducting its annual Winter Training Cycle, bringing its forces up to the highest state of readiness at the optimal attack time of March when the ground is still hard from the winter freeze and when the rice paddies are not yet planted in the South, making it easier for tanks and mechanized vehicles to maneuver. This is why for years since 1974 the alliance conducted Team Spirit annually in March, which – until its last iteration in 1993, when the alliance cancelled it in the run up to the nuclear crisis of 1994 – was the largest exercise in the free world.

To not conduct training would be the height of irresponsibility, because it would put the ROK at great risk, especially as North Korea completes its Winter Training Cycle now at its highest state of readiness. The alliance should not be swayed by North Korean rhetoric. The ROK and U.S. have to do what is right to ensure the security of the ROK and the protection of U.S. interests in the region. And the right thing to do is to train correctly at all echelons.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David 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.

Written By

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).