DOKDO and GWIn my previous entry on the U.S.-ROK naval strategy after the OPCON, I argued for a combined fleet whereby the U.S. and ROK Navies, together with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Since I have been getting mixed responses with regards to the viability of the aforementioned proposal, I felt compelled to flesh out this concept in a subsequent entry. Here, I will examine command unity and operational parity within the proposed combined fleet.

First, as Chuck Hill points out in his response to my prior entry, should the three navies coalesce to form a combined fleet, the issue of command unity may not be easily overcome because “[w]hile the South Korean and Japanese Navies might work together under a U.S. Commander, I don’t see the Japanese cooperating under a South Korean flag officer.” Indeed, given the mutual rancor over historical grievances, and the ongoing territorial row over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, both Japan and the ROK may be unwilling to entertain this this arrangement. However, this mutual rancor, if left unchecked, could potentially undermine coherent tactical and strategic responses against further acts of aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. It is for this reason that Japan and the ROK should cooperate as allies if they truly desire peace in East Asia.

So how can the three countries successfully achieve command unity within the combined fleet? One solution would be for an American admiral to assume command of the fleet. However, while it is true that the ROKN and the JMSDF have participated in joint exercises under the aegis of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this arrangement would stymie professional growth of both the ROKN and JMSDF admirals who lack professional expertise comparable to their American counterparts. In particular, given that ROKN admirals will assume wartime responsibility for their fleets after the 2015 OPCON transfer, such arrangement would be unhealthy for the ROKN because it would only lead to further dependence on the U.S. Navy.

Instead, a more viable solution, as Hill suggests, would be for the three navies to operate on a “regular rotation schedule…with the prospective commander serving as deputy for a time before assuming command.” This arrangement would somewhat alleviate the existing tension between the ROKN and JMSDF officers. Furthermore, the rotation schedule may serve as an opportunity for ROKN and JMSDF admirals to prove their mettle as seaworthy commanders.

One successful example that demonstrates the efficacy of the above proposal is the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience with the Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to the present. In 2011, ROKN SEALs successfully conducted a hostage rescue operation against Somali pirates. ROKN admirals also assumed command of the Task Force twice, in 2010 and 2012 respectively.[1] According to Terrence Roehrig, the ROKN’s recent anti-piracy operational experience has “provide[d] the ROK navy with valuable operational experience [in] preparation for North Korean actions, while also gaining from participating in and leading multilateral operations.”[2]

However, it should be noted that it is “unclear whether ROK counter-piracy operations [with CTF 151] had a significant deterrent effect and, if so, it [was] likely to be limited.”[3] While CTF 151 may provide a plausible model for command unity for the combined fleet concept, it does not fully address potential operational and logistical problems in the event of another armed conflict on the peninsula. Moreover, while frequent joint exercises and exchange programs have lessened operational and linguistic problems, so long as the ROKN continues to be overshadowed by the Army-centric culture and structure within the ROK Armed Forces, it cannot function effectively as a vital component of the U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance in deterring future aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.

To achieve operational parity within the combined fleet, I recommend the following. First, the United States could help bolster the naval aviation capabilities of both navies. The JMSDF has been expanding its number of helicopter carriers, while the ROKN is expanding its fleet of Dokdo-class landing ships, supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in addition to its naval air wing. However, the absence of carrier-based fighter-bomber capabilities may pose problems for the combined fleet concept because it deprives the fleet of flexible tools to respond expeditiously to emergent threats. Thus, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could equip the two navies with the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or the new F-35s.

Second, both Japan and the ROK should bolster their amphibious and special operations forces (SOF) capabilities. As the successful hostage rescue operation in January, 2011, of the crew of the Korean chemical tanker Samho Jewelry by the ROKN SEAL team demonstrates, naval SOF capabilities may provide the combined fleet with a quick reaction force to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Furthermore, amphibious capabilities similar to the U.S. MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) may provide both the ROK and Japan with the capabilities to proactively deter and not merely react to future DPRK provocations. That the Japanese Rangers[4] have recently trained for amphibious landing with U.S. Marines, while the ROK MND (Ministry of National Defense) has granted more autonomy to the ROK Marines, can be construed as steps in the right direction. As if to bear this out, there are reports that the ROK MND plans to establish a Marine aviation brigade by 2015 to enhance the ROKMC’s transport and strike capabilities.

In this blog entry, I examined command arrangement and operational parity to explore ways in which a combined U.S.-ROK-Japanese fleet may successfully deter potential DPRK threats. Certainly, my proposal does not purport to offer perfect solutions to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, it is a small step towards achieving a common goal—preserving peace and stability which all East Asian nations cherish.


[1] Terrence Roehrig ‘s chapter in Scott Snyder and Terrence Roehrig et. al. Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security. New York: Report for Council on Foreign Relations Press, October 2012, p. 35
[2] ibid., pp. 41
[3] ibid.
[4] Japan does not have its own Marine Corps.




Posted by Jeong Lee in Marine Corps, Navy
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  • RightCowLeftCoast

    Another question not addressed here is to what extent will the Japanese government allow the JMSDF to operate and still be within its “defensive” mandate? There are internal forces who object to the “helicoptor destroyers” as being too offensive in nature, much the same way there were those in the UK who opposed the “thru-deck cruisers”. To what extent would the RoK be willing to support Japan against a potential aggresor such as communist China rather than a DPRK adversary which is the primary OPFOR? One possibility of a joint fleet would be to allow the different fleets to max-min and share assets, thus allowing each nations defense funds to go further by reducing the amount of capability overlap, if the force is truly able to support all the national interest of each nation.

  • Jeong Lee

    Thanks for your comment. Indeed, your concern was one of the things that kept cropping up in the comment section at CIMSEC’s “Next War” blog (http://cimsec.org/a-korean-peninsula-combined-fleet/) where it was originally published. The main foci of the article were operational parity and command structure–and so no, I did not discuss geostrategic level implications. The one determinant that will affect this arrangement is China’s reaction to this alliance. For one, this will indubitably anger the Chinese who may construe the expeditionary combined fleet as evidence of threats posed by the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. Will it lead to a regional ” naval competition” as Gabe Collins argues in the Diplomat? That, we will have to wait and see.

    As for Japan, according to BBC back in April, Japan “said it was co-operating closely with the US and South Korea to monitor the North’s next move” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22027867). So potential exists that Japan will cooperate–if it feels that its own security, and hence, interests are threatened. I must also say that I support Abe’s position on the amendment of the existing constitution. In light of the fact that Japan is in the midst of a territorial row with China over Senkaku/Diaoyu and feels threatened by DPRK’s belligerent threats, from the perspective of the Abe Administration, the amendment of the constitution so that the Japanese military would no longer be called “Self-Defense” Force makes perfect sense. But then again, it remains yet to be seen whether the ROK would be willing to a military alliance or collective security arrangement with Japan. Its attempts to do so last year–under Lee Myung-bak, that is–backfired because South Korean citizens felt that they were not consulted sufficiently on this matter.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      That brings up a good questions of how much RoK would see it as a benefit to take on the liabilities that would come with a mutual defense treaty with Japan. Also, how much opposition would occur domestically with the RoK regarding such a treaty, given the rocky history between Japan and Korea? In that same light, although Japan sees both DPRK & PRC as potential aggresors, to what exent would Japan be willing to commit forces to defend RoK ashore, and what potential liabilities would Japan incur from the Mutual Defense Treaty? Would Japan become a more likely target of the DPRK if it restarts the Korean War as a military ally with the RoK?

      • Jeong Lee

        I think they would very much depend on how much, or to what extent, Japan feels threatened by the DPRK. I feel like I’ve said this many times in my comment section and on my first entry (http://blog.usni.org/2013/07/11/reconfiguring-the-us-rok-naval-strategy-for-the-wartime-opcon-transfer-part-i), but given the deep-seated rancor between Japan and the ROK, they will not likely enter into the mutual defense treaty without the United States. But at some point, and even retired VADM Koda acknowledges this in his essay on the ROKN for the Naval War College(http://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/c54ee0a4-987f-4a66-800e-ef88de9381d1/The-Emerging-Republic-of-Korea-Navy–A-Japanese-Pe.aspx), they must coalesce if they are to effectively counter the DPRK. Already the foundations through which they can build this coalition exists, albeit somewhat flimsy.

        Of late, Kim Jong-un has threatened its East Asian neighbors, and if he does become intractable or refractory, I do see some form of military or diplomatic front within East Asia–that also includes Russia, China and the United States–to deal with the DPRK–territorial rows and historical grievances or not. So the question of whether or not Japan will be targeted has been already answered to a degree.

        I believe I answered your question faithfully. And I do think I’ve exhausted this discussion.

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