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(This article originally appeared at RealClearDefense on October 24th, 2013.)

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In an earlier article for the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), I argued that in order for the U.S.-South Korean alliance to effectively counter threats emanating from North Korea (DPRK), South Korea (ROK) must gradually move away from its Army-centric culture to accommodate jointness among the four services. In particular, as Liam Stoker has noted, naval power may offer the “best possible means of ensuring the region’s safety without triggering any further escalation.”

The appointment last week of former ROK Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Choi Yoon-hee as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seems to augur a shift in focus in the ROK’s strategic orientation. Given that the ROK’s clashes with the DPRK have occurred near the contested Northern Limit Line throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, President Park Geun-hye’s appointment of Admiral Choi as Chairman of ROK JCS seems to be appropriate. Indeed, during his confirmation hearings two weeks prior, Admiral Choi repeatedly vowed retaliatory measures in the event of another DPRK provocation.

Furthermore, by tapping Admiral Choi to head the ROK JCS, President Park also appeared to signal that she is mindful of the feverish East Asian naval race. The ongoing naval race among three East Asian naval powers (China, Japan, and South Korea) is rooted in historical grievances over Japan’s wartime atrocities and fierce competition for limited energy resources. These two factors may explain the ROK’s increased spending to bolster its naval might.

General Curtis Scaparrotti (left), head of USFK, and ROK CJCS Admiral Choi Yun-hee (right)

General Curtis Scaparrotti (left), head of USFK, and ROK CJCS Admiral Choi Yun-hee (right)

Indeed, the ROK Navy has become a great regional naval power in the span of a decade. The ROKN fields an amphibious assault ship, the Dokdo, with a 653 feet-long (199 meters) flight deck. The ship, named after disputed islets claimed by both the ROK and Japan, is supposedly capable of deploying a Marine infantry battalion for any contingencies as they arise. Given that aircraft carriers may offer operational and strategic flexibility for the ROK Armed Forces, it is perhaps unsurprising that “funding was restored in 2012” for a second Dokdo-type aircraft carrier and more in 2012 and that Admiral Choi has also expressed interest in aircraft carrier programs. Moreover, the ROKN hassteadily increased its submarine fleet in response to the growing asymmetric threats emanating from North Korea and Japan’s alleged expansionist tendencies. As the Korea Times reported last Wednesday, the ROKN has also requested three Aegis destroyers to be completed between 2020 and 2025 to deal with the DPRK nuclear threats and the naval race with its East Asian neighbors.

Thus, at a glance, it would appear that the ROK has built an impressive navy supposedly capable of offering the Republic with a wide range of options to ensure strategic and operational flexibility. However, this has led some analysts to question the utility and raisons d’être for such maintaining such an expensive force.

Kyle Mizokami, for example, argues South Korea’s navy is impressive, yet pointless. He may be correct to note that the ROK “has prematurely shifted resources from defending against a hostile North Korea to defeating exaggerated sea-based threats from abroad.” After all, at a time when Kim Jŏng-ŭn has repeatedly threatened both the ROK and Japan, it may be far-fetched to assume that Japan may “wrest Dokdo/Takeshima away by force.” It would also make no sense to purchase “inferior version of the Aegis combat system software that is useless against ballistic missiles” which does not necessarily boost its naval might.

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However, what Mizokami may not understand is that the seemingly impressive posturing of the ROKN does not necessarily mean the expansion of the Navy at the expense of diminishing Army’s capabilities. As my January piece for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and Michael Raska’s East Asia Forum article argue, the greatest barriers to service excellence for the ROKN may be South Korea’s uneven defense spending, and operational and institutional handicaps within the conservative ROK officer corps. One telling indication which bears this out may be the fact that the expansion of the ROKN and Admiral Choi’s chairmanship of the ROK JCS did not lead to the reduction of either the budget allocated for the ROK Army or of the existing 39 ROK Army divisions in place.

Moreover, if, as Mizokami argues, the ROK seems bent on pursuing strategic parity with Japan—and to a lesser extent, China—I should point out that it does not even possess the wherewithal to successfully meet this goal. As I notedin late August, in order for the ROK to achieve regional strategic parity with its powerful neighbors, South Korea must spend at least 90% of what its rivals spend on their national defense. That is, the ROK’s $31.8 billion defense budget is still substantially smaller than Japan’s $46.4 billion. If anything, one could argue that the ROK’s supposedly “questionable” strategic priorities have as much to do with political posturing and show aimed at domestic audience as much as they are reactions to perceived threats posed by its powerful neighbors.

Finally, neither the ROK military planners nor Mizokami seem to take into account the importance of adroit diplomatic maneuvers to offset tension in East Asia. In light of the fact that the United States appears reluctant to reverse its decision to hand over the wartime Operational Control (OPCON) in 2015, the ROK may have no other recourse but to deftly balance its sticks with diplomatic carrots to avert a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula.

In short, it remains yet to be seen whether the ROK will successfully expand the scope of its strategic focus from its current preoccupation with the Army to include its naval and air capabilities. One cannot assume that this transformation can be made overnight because of an appointment of a Navy admiral to the top military post, or for that matter, because it has sought to gradually bolster its naval capabilities. Nor can one assume that they are misdirected since a service branch must possess versatility to adapt to any contingencies as they arise. Instead, a balanced operational and strategic priority which encompasses the ground, air and maritime domain in tandem with deft diplomacy may be what the ROK truly needs to ensure lasting peace on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia.

Photo credit: U.S. Forces Korea, SinoDefence, ITV



Speaking at the Association of the United States Army on the 12th, Admiral James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience that in future ground wars the tempo will be “shorter, faster-paced and much harder” because America’s adversaries will work to create a “fog of war.” Thus, the Admiral suggested that the Army “place more emphasis on the growth industry…of protecting American citizens abroad” in order to adapt to the fluid geostrategic environment.

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VCJCS Admiral James Winnefeld speaking at the Association of the United States Army on September 12th.

Indeed, since the sequestration went into effect in March, many defense experts have been debating what the future may hold for the Army, the Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Whatever their respective views may be on the utility of landpower in future wars, all seem to agree on one thing: that in the sequestration era, the ground components must fight leaner and smarter.

For John R. Deni, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, the answer seems to lie in the “Army-led military-to-military activities” which may provide stability in politically volatile regions “if only because most military forces around the globe are army-centric.”

Others beg to differ. Generals James Amos and Raymond Odierno and Admiral William McRaven seem to second Admiral Winnefeld’s claim when they argue that today “the need to conduct large-scale aid and consequence management missions, both within the United States and internationally, is certain to grow.” General James Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant, also recently echoes this view when he advocates a lighter but mobile Marine Corps because he believes tomorrow’s conflicts will likely involve “violent extremism, battles for influence, disruptive societal transitions, natural disaster, extremist messages and manipulative politics.”

However, if the United States Armed Forces is truly concerned about raising a cost-efficient and versatile ground force, it can merge the Army, the SOCOM and the Marine Corps into one unified service branch. This idea is not new. As far back as 1994, the late Colonel David Hackworth advocated the merger of the Army and the Marine Corps because their missions seemed to overlap. He went so far as to claim that the Department of Defense (DoD) could save “around $20 billion a year.” Nevertheless, absent in Hackworth’s column was a coherent blueprint for how the DoD could effectively unify its ground components into a cohesive service because Hackworth did not flesh out his strategic vision for what 21st Century wars may look like.

Which raises a very salient question as to what America’s strategic priorities should be. In a perceptive op-ed, Mark Fitzgerald, David Deptula and Gian P. Gentile aver that the United States must choose to go to “war as a last resort and not a policy option of first choice.” To this must be added another imperative. The United States Armed Forces must prioritize homeland defense as its primary mission and rethink the mistaken belief that the United States can somehow secure its interests through “lengthy military occupations of foreign lands.”

Thus, this newly merged service must redirect its focus towards countering cyber warfare and CBRNe (Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear and explosives) attacks and should work towards bolstering its counterterrorism (CT) capabilities. This is because, due to the convergence of the global community, the United States may be vulnerable to attacks from within by homegrown terrorists and drug cartels—all of which may wreak havoc and may even cripple America’s domestic infrastructures.

Reorientation of its mission focus may also require that the new service reconfigure its size. After all, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Washington should remember that the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength.” One solution is to adopt the so-called “Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM)” centered around the combat group concept which may reduce the strength of the new service “yet in the end produce a force that has greater combat capability…[and] more sustainable.” This model may provide the United States with a deployable fire brigade in the event of a national emergency or an international crisis. Already, the bases from which to adopt this viable model exist in the form of Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes.

Should the United States decide that it needs to project its hard power abroad to guard its interests, it could deploy the Special Operations Forces (SOF) components of the new service in tandem with UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to selectively target and neutralize potential threats. While the SOF and UAV surgical raids should not be viewed as substitutes for deft diplomacy, they can provide cheaper and selective power projection capabilities. Moreover, doing so could minimize the risks inherent in power projection and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) missions which may potentially mire the United States in messy and protracted conflicts.

Marines from MARSOC honing their rifle marksmanship skills. Photo by MARSOC Public Affairs

Last but not least, this new service could buttress interoperability and capabilities of allied forces around the globe through military-to-military exchanges. Although Deni was referring specifically to the Army-led initiatives when he suggested this, he may be correct that military-to-military engagements may help to promote America’s image abroad as a trusted guarantor of peace. But even more important, such activities may “mean fewer American boots on the ground.” However, implementing what the retired Marine General James Mattis refers to as the “proxy strategy” may be a better means by which the United States could “lead from behind.” Under this arrangement, while “America’s general visibility would decline,” its allies and proxies would police the trouble spots on its behalf.

Contrary to what many in the defense establishment believe, the austerity measures wrought by the sequestration have not been entirely negative. If anything, this perceived “crisis” has provided the much-needed impetus for innovative approaches to national defense. The proposed merger of the ground forces may provide the United States with most cost-effective and versatile service branch to defend the homeland and safeguard its interests abroad.



(Note: This article appeared at RealClearDefense and is cross-posted by permission.)

On August 18th South Korea selected Boeing’s F-15SE Silent Eagle as the sole candidate for Phase III of its Fighter eXperimental Project (F-X) over Lockheed Martin’s F-35A and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The decision has drawn vociferous criticism from defense experts who fear the selection of F-15SE may not provide the South Korean military with the sufficient Required Operational Capabilities (ROCs) to counterbalance Japan and China’s acquisition of 5th generation stealth fighters.

In hindsight, Zachary Keck of The Diplomat believes that Republic of Korea’s (ROK)preference for the F-15SE over two other competitors was “unsurprising.” After all, Boeing won the previous two fighter competitions with its F-15-K jet. In 2002 and 2008, South Korea bought a total of 61 F-15K jets from Boeing. South Korea’s predilection for the F-15SE is understandable given its 85% platform compatibility with the existing F-15Ks.

The ROK has 60 F-15K Slam Eagles in service with its 11th Fighter Wing based in Taegu.

The ROK has 60 F-15K Slam Eagles in service with its 11th Fighter Wing based in Taegu.

However, the most convincing explanation seems to be the fear of “structural disarmament” of the ROK Air Force should it choose to buy yet another batch of expensive fighters to replace the aging F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters. Simply stated, the more advanced the fighter jet, the more costly it is. The more expensive the jet, the fewer the South Korean military can purchase. The fewer stealth fighters purchased, the smaller the ROK Air Force.

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(This article appeared at RealClearDefense and is cross-posted by permission.)

In previous writing about the ongoing East Asian naval race shortly after the launching of the Japanese helicopter destroyer Izumo (DDH-183), I noted that the feverish naval race may be rooted in historical grievances, fierce competition for scarce resources, and the recent sequestration cuts within the Department of Defense, which may make it more difficult for the United States to “manage its alliances and strategic partnerships in the region.”

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The launching of the JDS Izumo (DDH-183) Photo: Associated Press/Kyodo

As some of my readers have pointed out, I may have appeared somewhat biased against Japan because I did not fully account for other dynamics of the regional naval competition. However, it is not my intention in any way to accuse Japan or its neighbors of espousing expansionist tendencies. I should, therefore, point out that the factors behind the ongoing naval race may be more complex than they appear at first.

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On August 6th, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) ran a feature on the latest Japanese helicopter destroyer, the Izumo (DDH-183). CIMSEC contributor Miha Hribernik observed that the Izumo, which is supposedly capable of carrying an aviation squadron and boasts a 814 feet-long (248 meters) STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) flight deck, is “sure to cause concern in China…[since the launching of the ship] presents a potent addition to the operational capabilities and strategic reach of the JMSDF.”

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Aircraft carrier classification and comparison according to globalsecurity.org

According to Business Insider, the launching of the helicopter destroyer “came in” shortly after China’s recent statement that it is in “no rush [to sign the proposed Code of Conduct] since [Southeast Asian nations involved] harbor unrealistic expectations.” Japan’s territorial row involving Diaoyu/Senkaku coupled with threats emanating from the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea) might have triggered increased defense spending. However, the two aims of Japan’s burgeoning defense spending, pre-emptive strike capabilities and the creation of an amphibious assault unit similar to the United States Marine Corps, have made its East Asian neighbors uneasy. As for America’s reaction, Zachary Keck believes that while it is “unclear” how the Obama Administration will respond to Japan’s pre-emptive attack on its “adversary’s bases,” the Obama Administration could become “vocal” should Japan act upon its “threats to review [its] past apologies.”

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Five months after the much-dreaded sequestration went into effect, many defense analysts and military officials alike are worried about the negative repercussions of the drastic budget cuts on military readiness. In his latest commentary, the rightwing commentator Alan Caruba declared that “The U.S. military is on life support.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also argued in his Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) that “sequester-level cuts would ‘break’ some parts of the strategy, no matter how the cuts were made [since] our military options and flexibility will be severely constrained.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers reporters' questions during a Pentagon press briefing on the recent Strategic Choices. Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., right, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Hagel for the briefing. (DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers reporters’ questions during a Pentagon press briefing on the recent Strategic Choices. Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., right, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Hagel for the briefing. (DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

To its credit, the SCMR seemed to hint at operational and structural adjustments underway by offering two options—trading “size for high-end capacity” versus trading modernization plans “for a larger force better able to project power.” Nevertheless, one important question which went unasked was whether or not the US Armed Forces alone should continue to play GloboCop.

The current geostrategic environment has become fluid and fraught with uncertainties. As Zhang Yunan avers, China as a “moderate revisionist” will not likely replace the United States as the undisputed global champion due to myriad factors. As for the United States, in the aftermath of a decade-long war on terror and the ongoing recession, we can no longer say with certainty that the United States will still retain its unipolar hegemony in the years or decades to come.

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U.S. soldiers board an Air Force C-130 as they depart Afghanistan. Image: U.S. Department of Defense

General Joseph Dunford, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, has recently told the New York Times that America’s “presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.” His reasoning was that although the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are bearing the brunt of fighting, “at the end of 2014, [they] won’t be completely independent” operationally and logistically.

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According to the Yŏnhap News Agency last Thursday, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin “confirmed…that he had requested the U.S. government” to postpone the OPCON (Operational Command) transfer slated for December, 2015. Citing from the same source, the National Journal elaborated further by saying Minister Kim believed that the United States was open to postponing the transfer because “a top U.S. government official leaked to journalists” Minister Kim’s request for the delay.

Chuck Hagel and Kim Kwan-jin

Ministerial-level meeting

There may be several reasons for the ROK government’s desire to postpone the OPCON transfer. First, the critics of the OPCON transfer both in Washington and the ROK argue that this transition is “dangerously myopic” as it ignores “the asymmetric challenges that [North Korea] presents.” Second, given the shrinking budget, they argue that the ROK may not have enough time to improve its own C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence) capabilities, notwithstanding a vigorous procurement and acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry and indigenous research and development programs for its local defense industries. Third, South Korea’s uneven defense spending, and operational and institutional handicaps within the conservative ROK officer corps have prevented South Korea from developing a coherent strategy and the necessary wherewithal to operate on its own. To the critics of the OPCON handover, all these may point to the fact that, over the years, the ROK’s “political will to allocate the required resources has been constrained by economic pressures and the imperative to sustain South Korea’s socio-economic stability and growth.” As if to underscore this point, the ROK’s defense budget grew fourfold “at a rate higher than conventional explanations would expect” due to fears that the United States may eventually withdraw from the Korean peninsula. It was perhaps for these reasons that retired GEN B. B. Bell, a former Commander of the United States Forces Korea, has advocated postponing the transfer “permanently.

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In the wake of Hassan Rowhani’s landslide victory as Iran’s new president, some foreign policy mavens now believe that Rowhani’s presidency may augur a positive shift in Iran’s hitherto hostile policy towards the West. However, despite a glimmer of hope that Rowhani’s election may translate into moderate policies towards the West, others have “adopted a cautious ‘wait-and-see’ posture,” citing Rowhani’s past affiliation with the Ayatollah.

For East Asian experts, Rowhani’s election warrants attention because it remains to be seen whether Iran will retain its current alliance with Kim Jŏng-ŭn even if it chooses to reconcile with the West. After all, some have alleged that Iran has played a major role in the DPRK’s successful testing of its Ŭnha-3 rocket last December. More importantly, Rowhani’s future stance towards the West deserves attention because it may determine whether or not the United States must revise its strategy to adapt to new geostrategic realities. Indeed, it can be argued that the aforementioned factors are not mutually exclusive but intricately intertwined.

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On June 1st, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Republic of Korea (ROK) Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin met to discuss the creation of an “alternative joint operation body…similar to that of the current South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.” According to the Yŏnhap News Agency, should this change occur, the ROK Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will lead the new combatant command with the “top U.S. commander in South Korea serving as his deputy.”

Although I have written previously that the United States should retain the wartime OPCON (Operational Control) for the sake of flexible strategic responses against the DPRK, it appears unlikely that the joint decision between the United States and the ROK to transfer the OPCON to the ROK military will be reversed. So how can the U.S.-ROK naval forces successfully adapt to the change?

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