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.

12 thoughts on “A Korean Peninsula Combined Fleet”

  1. Or the Chinese and other South East Asian navies. Looking back after I wrote this piece, I feel that I should have addressed how the Chinese might react to the combined fleet concept. Unless the coalition fleet included them in some way, they might construe this as further evidence of threats posed by America’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. But that is a different matter.

    This article is what it is and addresses operational and tactical matters.

  2. Thank you for inviting me to review this blog post. It is a well thought out plan and does address the need for regional force cooperation and joint operations to deter the likes of the “not so sane” leaders of “rogue nations” in the area.

    I certainly am not a naval operations specialist by any means, and not entirely sure that lack of solidarity and force capability is the main reason that the North Korean leading family feels like they can make threats against both the United States and “her” allies. It is not wise to consider their rantings as total farce, but it is also logical that their capabilities to wage war against the much more well equipped and supported South Korean forces is very much lacking at present, much less with the backing of the United States forces in the area with strike capabilities far beyond what the North can muster or defend against. Of course this does not take into account the Chinese element as their ally and how much the Chinese detest the Japanese for invasions of decades past, or the other issues associated with their tenuous alliance with North Korea.

    The perceived threat is real, but how real is something that has to be considered when undertaking massive change in military operations in the area that will cost millions of dollars and thousands of hours of manpower to devise and implement. I do agree that cooperation among nations is a critical element in maintaining peace in the region, and that a military cooperative joint task force is not a bad idea.

    However it must, in my unschooled opinion, be as part of a larger canvas which includes economic, and diplomatic cooperation that will take away the need for North Korean politicians to use threats to gain U.S. economic and food assistance, which is how they have historically managed to get aid as part of a package to calm them down. This often has taken the form of threats to reinstall nuclear reactors with feeder capability for weapons grade nuclear material or an occasional lobbing of a “test” missile in our direction, and each time they back off once they get money and food aid.

    Of course this article is designed to show the operational feasibility of a joint naval presence in the region, but it has as it’s prime rationale to deter North Korea from aggressive military action.

    How do you see this joint naval presence growing? Is this something massive as I imagine or just sufficient to provide the needed added strength to stop N.Korea from actually making stupid moves across the DMZ? One carrier group or dozens? I see the concept, but I don’t see the scope mentioned, or was that in another article that I have yet to view?

    1. Mr. Wolverton,

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my blog series.

      I have argued many times for diplomatic solutions when dealing with Kim Jŏng-ŭn and still believe in this. (You will find that I’ve written many times on East Asia Forum, the World Outline and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that we need to treat Kim Jŏng-ŭn with respect as sovereign ruler of his country and that the United States may have to work with China to ensure peace and stability in East Asia.)

      Now, that doesn’t mean that we let him ride roughshod all over us, however. Viewed in this light, my combined fleet concept can be understood as Plan B–assuming diplomacy fails to achieve its intended goal. You will find in this article that I refer to “proactively deterring” the future DPRK threats via MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) units as opposed to merely reacting. That is because reacting to emergent threats as they arise is a luxury that the United States, ROK, and Japan cannot afford. As you point out, expanding amphibious, SOF, and carrier-based naval aviation capabilities are expensive and time-consuming. But given that the DPRK’s threats and provocations have been unpredictable and assymetric in nature, such offensive capabilities offer the fleet much-needed flexibility and powerful punch. (This will make the Chinese uneasy, but that is a different subject matter.) In short, they are defense dollars well-spent. As for the scope of its capabilities and responsibilities, two to three carrier groups–combined, of course!–with one regimental-sized MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) and one SEAL team per carrier group should serve not as deterrents or trip wires, but as quick reaction force units,

      1. Oh, now I understand. I have not had the privilege of reading your posts before in any forum or media so I apologize for not following the thread of your thinking. This clarifies the scope and the actual long term deployment aspect as an ongoing joint military exercise. There is an interesting comment by Scott about Japan’s willingness and/or ability to come to the aid of a partner vessel in an emergency situation based on the Japanese constitution (related to military intervention I assume); and an issue regarding sharing of information that is regarded as military secrets by participating countries. I look forward to reading your responses to those issues.

  3. As to scope and mission, I think you could make a case for a combined anti-ballistic missile defense (ABMD) force of AEGIS destroyers from the three countries, coordinating their efforts to defend both S. Korea and Japan.

    This might form the core of a later more comprehensive cooperation.

  4. Agree with Chuck – it will be important to figure out what exactly the bounds of their mission would be. You might also run into complications with Japan’s ability to (not) perform collective self-defense (i.e. come to the aid of a non-JMSDF vessel in this fleet that has been fired upon) in interpretation of their constitution.

    There may also be roadblocks in agreements to share data (in both a broad and technical sense) among all the participant vessels.

    1. To this, I should add that, 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. As to Hill’s suggestion for combined ABMD squadrons or flotillas, I like the concept. That will allow them to intercept and shoot down DPRK Musudans and whatever long-range missiles at the US-ROK-Japan alliance.

      Now, looking back, and I’ve mentioned this in the earlier response, I feel I should have discussed how the Chinese or the rest of Asia-Pacific countries may react to the combined concept. 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.

    1. I hear you loud and clear on this. I must 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.

      Now, nowhere in the article did it say that the JSDF would withhold data with other allies in the event where it would be engaged in a collective security action.

  5. If you are concerned with command relationships (very valid) AND speak of bolstering amphibious capability, you should really revise your C2 structure to account for CATF/CLF.

    It took allies many hard lessons in 2 world wars to get something that worked (notice I didn’t put that in present tense).

    OPN HUSKY, OPN AVALANCHE, and OPN FORAGER may be good starting point for you to read what worked/didn’t work in the past.

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