US, South Korea Cancel Another Big Combat Exercise As Ties Between Seoul and Pyongyang Grow

Canceling exercises could help negotiations with the North moving forward, but also could hurt the readiness of US and South Korean forces.

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The U.S. and South Korea have agreed to scrap a major air warfare exercise in order to help promote ongoing diplomatic efforts with North Korea. The decision seems to primarily reflect the progress authorities in Seoul have had in expanding ties with their counterparts in Pyongyang, but raises questions about how much of an impact canceling future drills might have on the ability of the United States and South Korea to respond to any future crises on the Peninsula.

The Pentagon announced the suspension of the latest iteration of the annual Vigilant Ace exercise, which typically occurs in the winter. Vigilant Ace 2018, which began on Dec. 4, 2017, involved hundreds of U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy and South Korean Air Force aircraft, including American F-22A Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth fighters, flying from eight different bases in South Korea. This year’s gathering was slated to involve more than 12,000 personnel from both countries.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and South Korea Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong Doo canceled the exercise “to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” Pentagon Press Secretary Dana White said in a statement. “Both ministers are committed to modifying training exercises to ensure the readiness of our forces. They pledged to maintain close coordination and evaluate future exercises.”

This isn't the first large-scale exercise the U.S. and South Korean militaries have agreed to cancel this year. Following his historic summit with North Korean premier Kim Jong Un in June 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump directed a halt to the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill, ostensibly as a goodwill gesture to help still ongoing negotiations over the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

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US Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter jets prepare to take off during Vigilant Ace 2018 in December 2017.

“We will work very closely, as I’ve said, with the Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo], and what he needs done, we will certainly do to reinforce his efforts, but at this time there is no discussion of further suspensions,” Mattis told reporters on Aug. 28, 2018. There are “no plans, at this time, to suspend any more exercises” and the Pentagon had “done no planning for suspending” future drills, he added.

The next day, Trump took to Twitter, speaking in the third person, to make clear that the possibility of canceling more military exercises remained on the table. The President specifically cited the cost of the drills, which he had previously used to, in part, justify the suspension of Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

“Nonetheless, the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one, and there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” Trump wrote in a series of posts on the social media site on Aug. 29, 2018. “Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea, and Japan, if he so chooses.”

The decision to halt major exercises such as Vigilant Ace is a significant choice, though. The official goal of the last iteration of the drill in 2017 was “to deter, and if necessary defeat, a rapidly evolving threat” on the Korean Peninsula, a not-so-veiled reference to North Korea. Though the U.S. and South Korean militaries offered no specifics, the training missions could have covered practicing to conduct limited strikes in the North against to target portions of that country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure or ballistic missile capabilities, or to neutralize its leadership as part of a so-called “decapitation strike.” The exercise also offered an opportunity for both countries to practice working together in general, skills that would be critical in responding to imminent North Korean threats on short notice during a crisis.

As such, halting Vigilant Ace is a significant victory for the North Koreans, who have criticized it and other major drills for decades, accusing the United States and South Korea of conducting dry runs for an invasion. In May 2018, Kim Jong Un had threatened not to attend the summit with Trump in Singapore over another air warfare drill called Max Thunder. Ultimately, that exercise went ahead as planned and Kim met with Trump.

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A South Korean F-15K Slam Eagle taxies past a row of South Korean F-4E Phantoms during Max Thunder 2017.

Still, canceling the exercise is yet another indication of how serious South Korea is in attempting to establish more normal government-to-government relations with the North, reduce military tensions, and expand social and economic ties. In September 2018, the two Koreas agreed to create an extended buffer zone along the inter-Korean border where no maneuver or live-fire drills could occur.

They also agreed to pull back various forces permanently stationed along the Demilitarized Zone and have begun removing mines and fixed fortifications in the divided border village of Panmunjom, which serves as a key meeting place for North and South Korean officials, and at a separate hilltop site that may contain the remains of as many as 300 South Korean, French and U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War. All of this has served to build trust between the two Koreas who are now looking to reopen various rail and road connections to facilitate more regular trade and travel.

Kyodo via AP

North Korean premier Kim Jong Un, second from the left, holds hands with South Korean President Moon Jae In atop Mount Paektu near the Chinese border in September 2018. It is the highest point on the Korean Peninsula and an extremely significant landmark for all Koreans.

But canceling the exercises is also something of a gamble, since, despite what Trump claimed in August 2018, the U.S. and South Korean militaries wouldn’t be able to “instantly” reboot the canceled exercises. These large-scale drills take months to plan and require intricate scheduling so as not to disrupt the other training and operational requirements for dozens of units.

Coordinating the activities of 12,000 individuals and their aircraft, as well as the task of bringing in additional planes and personnel from outside the country, is a major undertaking on its own and one that holds a training value in of itself. The U.S. Air Force and Navy have recently begun sounding the alarm that massive movements of personnel and assets are unlikely to go unchallenged in the future and could lead to serious difficulties for American forces in the opening phases of a large-scale conflict.

Secretary of Defense Mattis has downplayed the issue, saying that lower level training occurs constantly. Without major exercises such as Vigilant Ace, there is no opportunity to see how all the pieces may or may not actually work together in practice, though.

“That’s a key exercise to maintain continuity and to continue to practice our interoperability,” U.S. Army General Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Forces Korea, who would act as the top military commander on the Peninsula during a conflict, said at his confirmation hearing on Sept. 25, 2018. “So there was a slight degradation [in readiness].”

Alex Edelman/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

US Army General Robert Abrams, now head of US Forces Korea, at his confirmation hearing on Sept. 25, 2018.

As we at The War Zone have noted in the past, there’s no guarantee that the United States and South Korea might agree on what sort of North Korean actions, or lack thereof, would prompt a decision to restart exercises or the refusal to suspend more drills in the future. The U.S. government is, at least publicly, primarily committed to getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile programs.

Kim, however, has shown no indication he would be willing to “denuclearize” in any way – a term the United States and North Korea disagree on the definition of, to begin with – absent major concessions, such as a final peace settlement to formally end the Korean War and the lifting of sanctions. That could subsequently prompt calls from Pyongyang for the departure of all U.S. forces from South Korea.

For its part, South Korea has appeared increasingly willing to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and engage with it in other ways to seek to open the Hermit Kingdom to the world. The theory here would be that ending the North’s status as an international pariah would encourage reforms and liberalization of the country’s government and society in the long term.

In the meantime, canceling more exercises could help convince North Korea to continue negotiating, but as more drills get suspended, it may get even harder for the U.S. or South Korean threaten to restart them in the future, or at least do so quickly, if talks break down. This can only increasingly call into question the long-standing motto of U.S. and South Korean forces on the Peninsula, that they are 'ready to fight tonight,' as doing so requires regular large-scale training.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com