Tag Archives: Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force

Post-OPCON Strategy for the US-ROK Alliance

(This article is cross-posted by permission of the United States Naval Institute Blog and appeared in its original form on July 25th here.)

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.
However, the Obama Administration’s reversal of its decision to hand over the OPCON to the ROK military appears unlikely. First, in the face of the drastic sequestration cuts in the upcoming fiscal years, long-term commitment in the Korean peninsula may be unsustainable. Second, since both the United States Armed Forces and civilians suffer from war-weariness after having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade, it is unlikely that they will accept long-term overseas commitment of this magnitude. Which leads to the third point that the United States will likely favor diplomatic solutions when dealing with Kim Jŏng-ŭn, since the DPRK has recently expressed its desires to engage in dialogues. Fourth, “[m]ost economic and military indicators show that South Korea has an edge over North Korea in almost all measures of power.” While many opponents of the transition point to the DPRK’s asymmetric threats to make their case, Suh Jae-jung contends that “quantitative advantage quickly fades when one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its 1950s-vintage weapons systems” which has led “serious analysts [to] conclude that ‘North Korea never had a lead over South Korea.’” Most importantly, arguments against the scheduled transition are weak because they tend to focus only on the military dimensions of the ongoing conflict.
There are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance  can enhance security dynamics on the peninsula in the aftermath of the OPCON transfer. One obvious approach would be to seek diplomatic solutions to proactively deter further provocations by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Despite the deep-seated rancor and distrust between the two Korean states, both Korean states have nevertheless agreed to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. The latest inter-Korean talk held at P’anmunjŏm demonstrates more than anything else the need to “cajole and flatter the young ruler…[by] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” As Miha Hribernik and I wrote in June, one way of doing this would be to “accept his offers to discuss arms reduction first.” In addition, the US-ROK alliance could defuse tension on the Korean peninsula by recognizing the DPRK as a sovereign state. Such measures would prevent miscommunication where parties involved are “not talking to each other but rather, past each other.”
Nevertheless, the US-ROK alliance must avoid appearing weak even as it seeks diplomatic solutions to guarantee peace and security for the Korean peninsula. As I wrote earlier, “in order for diplomatic endeavors to be sustainable in the long-run, they must be backed up by a credible threat of coercion.” With or without the OPCON, there are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance can effectively deter future DPRK aggressions. One such option, as I’ve written earlier, would be for the United States Pacific Fleet and the ROKN, along with the JMSDF, to form a combined fleet whereby the three navies “would may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.” Second would be to allow the ROK JCS Chairman to assume command of the CFC with the top American general serving as his deputy as was proposed in June during a ministerial meeting held between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. However, at this juncture, according to the Washington Post, “the 28,500 U.S. troops here will not fall under the command of the South…[since] the United States and South Korea will have separate commands.” Third, to proactively deal with possible DPRK missile attacks, the US-ROK alliance, together with Japan, can develop a collective missile defense system.  Fourth, as retired Admiral James Stavridis argues, since the world has converged into smaller communities through globalization, we must take the fight to our adversary by “follow[ing] the money [to upend] threat financing” abroad and at home. Last but not least, since the DPRK’s  recent asymmetric attacks against the US-ROK alliance have been waged on cyberspace to cripple their infrastructures, the US-ROK alliance, in tandem with the international community, can work together to enhance their cyber security.
Despite unfounded fears among retired officers and conservative analysts that the OPCON transfer may considerably weaken South Korea’s security, it does not mean that the United States will completely withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Nor does the ROK resemble South Vietnam after the Paris Treaty of 1973. That is, the ROK remains an economically and politically stable nation. With new transition come new opportunities for innovative growth. For the ROK, OPCON transfer just may present such opportunities to protect itself from further aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.

 Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on various online publications, including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and the USNI Blog.

A Korean Peninsula Combined Fleet

The ROKS Dokdo and USS George Washington on exercise together.
The ROKS Dokdo and USS George Washington on exercise together.

In 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.

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on American Livewire, East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the World Outline.
[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.