Tensions on the Korean Peninsular have increased palpably in recent months, precipitated by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) antics in the Yellow Sea. At 21:20 on 26 March, a North Korean Yono-class mini-submarine launched a CHT-02D heavyweight torpedo at the ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772).
1st Oct 2010
Tensions on the Korean Peninsular have increased palpably in recent months, precipitated by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) antics in the Yellow Sea. At 21:20 on 26 March, a North Korean Yono-class mini-submarine launched a CHT-02D heavyweight torpedo at the ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772). The resulting explosion caused the South Korean Pohang-class corvette to sink rapidly with the loss of 46 sailors’ lives. A subsequent international investigation concluded the DPRK was responsible, despite the latter’s vehement protestations to the contrary. The attack came at a time when an ailing Kim Jong-il is in the process of elevating his heir-apparent, his youngest son Kim Jong-un, into position to succeed him as supreme leader.
The response from the Republic of Korea (ROK) and USA has been diplomatically defiant, but they are much more restricted in what they can do militarily. The fact that the DPRK could conceive of initiating such an attack shows just how unhinged its leaders are. Any forceful military action from the ROK-US alliance could push the North over the edge, so they must act carefully. One reaction from the alliance has been to stage naval exercises involving aircraft carriers and submarines in the Western (Yellow Sea) and Eastern Seas (Sea of Japan). Not only have these drills enraged the DPRK, but they raised anxiety levels in Beijing as well. While much of the recent action has focused on the naval arena, land forces remain a vital deterrent to North Korean aggression too. With the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) passing a mere 42km from Seoul, the capital is well within artillery range of DPRK howitzers and rocket launchers. Should the North Korean leadership take the ultimate gamble and make an armed foray across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), who is there to stop them? This article looks specifically at US ground units arrayed against the 1.1 million active and 4.7 million reservist troops of the world’s third largest army. While the US-ROK alliance may not have a numerical advantage, it certainly possesses a technological edge over its communist nemesis.
Eighth United States Army
There are just 28,500 American troops deployed on South Korean soil, yet the influence and deterrence value of United States Forces Korea (USFK) far exceeds actual numbers. USFK is headquartered at Yongsan Garrison alongside the Combined Forces Command (CFC) near the centre of Seoul, though the high-profile site is due to be relocated in coming years. The primary combat troops of USFK are air (7th Air Force) and ground forces, although the HQ includes all four branches of the US Armed Forces. Naval forces deployed in Japan and Guam, as well as Marine Corps (USMC) units in Okinawa, would quickly deploy in the event of hostilities breaking out.
American ground forces fall under the command of the Eighth United States Army (EUSA), led by Lieutenant General Joseph Fil, Jr. EUSA provides command and theatre support elements like logistics (19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command), signals (1st Signal Brigade), air defence (35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade), intelligence (501st Military Intelligence Brigade) and medical units (65th Medical Brigade). The mission of EUSA is described as: “To assist in deterring North Korean aggression.” The vast majority of the command’s combat troops are from the 2nd “Indianhead” Infantry Division (2nd ID), with its headquarters at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu north of Seoul. The location is strategic, for it covers one of three main avenues of approach that North Korea would have to take if it advanced south of the DMZ. American troops thus help defend one of the main topographic gateways to the capital Seoul, although ROK Army troops form the first line of defence against such an onslaught.
However, there are plans to relocate scattered American troops even further away from the DMZ. USFK is establishing two “enduring hubs” well south of Seoul, and hence far from the reach of North Korean artillery strikes. One hub is at Pyeongtaek based around Camp Humphreys of the army and Osan Air Base of the USAF. The other hub is in the vicinity of Pusan in the south, where Camp Carroll and naval facilities are. Existing installations are being expanded, and these are expected to begin receiving transferred troops beginning in 2014-16. USFK maintains 41 military installations on the Peninsular. The ROK government has asked for many of these to be returned, and the number will eventually be whittled down to ten under the Land Partnership Plan (LPP). This consolidation of American forces will allow the USFK commander greater operational flexibility, and enable the US to play more of a supporting role. USFK is also destined to become more of a naval-centric and air-centric force. South Korea currently foots around 15% of the cost of stationing US troops on its soil.
In light of the DPRK’s missile and nuclear weapon programme, a very important capability provided by EUSA units is that of missile defence. There are two Patriot battalions from the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade stationed in South Korea, and these provide defence from locations such as Osan Air Base, Suwon Air Base, Camp Casey and Camp Carroll. A small special forces contingent is also maintained in South Korea under the name of Special Operations Command – Korea (SOCKOR).
2nd Infantry Division
2nd ID has a strong historical connection to Korea, for it participated in the Korean War after being rushed there in 1950. It fought through the conflagration until its withdrawal in 1954. It redeployed to Korea again in 1965 at a time of growing tension, and it has remained in situ ever since. The division boasts approximately 9,700 troops in South Korea, while it also has three Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCT) stationed at Fort Lewis in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington for a total of around 30,000 troops. The 2nd BCT deployed directly from South Korea to Iraq under Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in September 2004, and it never returned to East Asia. This departure marked the last major drawdown in size for 2nd ID in South Korea. With its brigades separated by the Pacific Ocean, the division thus has two centres of balance.
An integral part of the US military response to any conflict on the Korean Peninsular is to rapidly deploy troops to reinforce the relatively small number permanently stationed there. According to Oplan 5027, specific units from Hawaii and the continental USA are earmarked to deploy to Korea by air and sea. Every year, this deployment is practised in what used to be known as the Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (RSOI) exercise, but which was renamed Exercise Key Resolve in 2008. US Army personnel airlifted and sea-lifted into Korea will pick up pre-positioned equipment, vehicles and ammunition from bases like Camp Carroll. The ability to rapidly insert large numbers of troops is crucial to American plans to withstand a North Korean assault. The corollary of such a strategy is that, in any attack, North Korea would attempt to gain a rapid victory before the USA had time to fully build up its forces in-country.
The “guts” of 2nd ID in South Korea is the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team (1 HBCT), with this “Iron Brigade” having adopted the US Army’s new modular brigade organisation. The division’s structure is illustrated in the accompanying table, but a brief summary of the principal units would be appropriate here. The two most powerful combat battalions of 1 HBCT are the 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment “Crusaders” (1-72 AR), and the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized) “Manchus” (2-9 IN). Despite their “armour” and “infantry” titles, these two battalions are identically equipped with a mix of 29 M1A1 AIM Abrams main battle tanks (MBT) and 29 M2A2 OIF Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFV). These units are based at Camp Hovey in the northern town of Dongducheon. They are supported by the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment (4-7 CAV) “Garryowen”, a reconnaissance unit equipped with M3A2 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles (CFV). In 2004 this unit handed in its M1A1 MBTs and Kiowa Warrior helicopters to become primarily equipped with M3A2 CFVs.
Artillery support comes in the shape of the 1st Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment (1-15 FA), which boasts 16 M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers (SPH). Such a small artillery component might seem odd in light of the overwhelming firepower of the DPRK, but the ROK Army is itself strong in artillery assets. 1 HBCT is also supported by the 210th Fires Brigade, which contains two combat battalions – the 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment (6-37 FA), and 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery Regiment (1-38 FA). Each battalion contains 18 M270A1 Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS). While other US Army units have trained predominantly for the type of counterinsurgency operations going on in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, 1 HBCT remains committed to preparing for a Cold War-type confrontation between massed armoured forces.
These combat units of 2nd ID rely on a major supply and logistics chain, and this is where the 302nd, 602nd and 702nd Brigade Support Battalions (302, 602 and 702 BSB) come in. The 1st Brigade Special Troop Battalion (1 BSTB) contains additional assets such as intelligence, network, rear security and chemical decontamination. The DPRK possesses an estimated 5,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons, and there is always the fear it would be desperate enough to resort to such methods. To help counter such a terrifying scenario, the US Army has the 4th Chemical Company in place. Its main equipment includes mobile decontamination modules, a smoke platoon, and six M93A1 Fox NBC reconnaissance vehicles.
2nd ID has integral aviation assets within the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade (2 CAB) based mainly at Camp Humphreys. This brigade includes UH-60L Black Hawks in 2-2 Aviation Regiment (Assault) and CH-47D Chinooks in 3-2 Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion). Until recently, there were two AH-64D Apache Longbow squadrons in South Korea, but 1-2 Aviation Regiment departed the country in March 2009. Upon its move to Fort Carson, Colorado, it was replaced by an extra F-16 fighter squadron of the USAF. The remaining Apache unit is 4-2 Aviation Regiment (Attack), which has two dozen AH-64D craft.
One further EUSA feature worthy of mention is the presence of KATUSA personnel. KATUSA stands for “Korean Augmentation to the US Army”, and it refers to a programme that commenced during the Korean War. To boost numbers, South Korean men were drafted into US Army units. At the height of the war in 1952 there were 27,000 South Koreans serving in American units. Presently there are 1,100 South Koreans embedded within EUSA, all of them fulfilling their compulsory two-year national-service obligations. KATUSAs do everything their American comrades do, and they serve in all manner of units whether as tank gunner, military intelligence expert or any other number of specialist roles. The KATUSA programme has a number of advantages, including mutual cooperation and familiarity between the two allies at both the military, cultural and personal level. KATUSAs are generally pleased to be serving with the US Army rather than the ROK Army, as the lot of an American soldier is more comfortable than that of a South Korean conscript! Despite the integration of South Koreans into the US Army, there is surprisingly little joint training that takes place between the US and ROK Armies. One might expect close cooperation at the battalion level or below, but in fact this rarely occurs. Instead, true cooperation occurs more at the higher command echelons such as at CFC.
Delays and hiccups
A key event was set to occur on 17 April 2012. On this day, full wartime operational control (OPCON) of all troops in South Korea was to be handed over to the ROK Armed Forces. Currently, General Walter Sharp, the USFK and CFC commander, would take control of all 600,000 active-duty South Korean and US troops in the event of a war breaking out on the Peninsular. At the present time, South Korea has peacetime but not wartime OPCON. The official 2012 handover was evidence of the growing maturity of the ROK Armed Forces, and would have led to the disbandment of CFC. Colonel Jon Sachrison, Deputy Chief of Combined Policy at CFC, speaking well before the Cheonan incident occurred, stated: “It is their responsibility as a democracy to defend their borders, their nation. And they’re quite capable of doing that. This is a logical progression.”
However, the sinking of ROKS Cheonan raised question marks over the combat preparedness and ability of the South Korean military to take on this responsibility. One immediate backlash of the sinking was the resignation of General Lee Sang-eui, the ROK Joint Chief of Staff. On 11 May, less than one month after the submarine attack, Lee Sang-woo, head of South Korea’s presidential commission on national security, said the April 2012 date should now be renegotiated with their US ally. Doubts were solidified when General Sharp retook control of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian command post exercise (CPX), a key training event in the process of readying South Korea for OPCON transfer, and an exercise that South Korea had commanded for the previous two years. Finally, in June it was announced OPCON transfer would be delayed by more than three years till December 2015. The announcement came from Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak at the G-20 economic summit in Toronto, Canada. Obama claimed it was “appropriate”, while Lee stated the delay “reflects the current security condition on the Korean Peninsular and will strengthen the alliance of the two nations.” This said alliance is anchored upon the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty ratified on 18 November 1954.
In a time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsular, the USA stands ready to support – and lead, if necessary – its Asian ally. Key to the US response is EUSA and its combat-ready 2nd ID. The US Army was caught napping at 04:00 hours on 25 June 1950 when the North launched its sudden onslaught across the 38th Parallel, and it is determined not to make the same mistake twice. The level of training for EUSA is among the highest of any unit in the US Army, and it is true to its motto of “Fight Tonight.” It would be a foolish North Korea that chose to cross the MDL and initiate an armed struggle with the combined technological might of South Korea and the USA. However, the North has already shown precisely this kind of “folly” in sinking a ROK Navy ship. What else is it capable of?