All posts by Jeong Lee

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.

Why the United States Should Merge Its Ground Forces

Part of our Sacred Cow series, originally posted at USNI Blog.

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.

Can South Korea’s Military Successfully Reorient Its Strategic Priorities?

ROK-Navy-2010

A continuation of The Hunt for Strategic September, analysis on the relevance of strategic guidance to today’s maritime strategy(ies). As part of the week we have encouraged our friendly international contributors to provide some perspective on their national and alliance strategic guidance issues.

In an earlier article for 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.

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

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog. This article appeared in its original form at RealClearDefense on October 24th, 2013.

Has South Korea Lost the East Asian Stealth Race?

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 Air Force 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.

Indeed, the limitations of South Korea’s US$7.43 billion budget for fighter acquisition and procurement (A & P) seems to have been the primary motivating factor in selecting the F-15SE. As Soon-ho Lee warned last month, “if the F-X project is pursued as planned, the ROK Air Force may have to scrap the contentious Korean Fighter eXperimental (KFX) project, which [may leave] the ROK Air Force [with] only around 200 fighters.”

The F-15SE enjoyed an undeniable price advantage in competition with the F-35A. Though the F-15SE does not actually exist yet, the New Pacific Institute estimates by looking at previous F-15 K sticker pricesthat a sixty plane order would cost $6 billion. The latest estimates from the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin put the unit cost of an F-35A at approximately $100 million, plus $16 million for the engine. Under this new price target (which may prove optimistic), 60 F-35As could cost the ROK over $7 billion.

But now that the decision has been made, how will the purchase of the F-15SE affect the ROK military’s operational and strategic capabilities?

The acquisition of the F-15SE would have little to no impact on South Korea’s current air superiority over the North. The gap in air power is simply too wide. As James Hardy of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly wrote last year, “Estimates by IHS Jane’s reckon that North Koreahas only 35 or so MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ air-supremacy fighters in service, alongside about 260 obsolete MiG-21 ‘Fishbeds’ and MiG-19 ‘Farmers.’” This may explain Jae Jung Suh’s of John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies claim that “quantitative advantage quickly fades when one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its 1950s-vintage weapons systems.”

That said,  as I noted in my previous article, the factors fueling the arms race among the major East Asian powers are two-fold: the ongoing territorial rows over disputed islands and seas, and the fear of their rival’s future capabilities. These two factors account for the fact that defense budget increases and acquisition of improved capabilities by China, Japan, and South Korea were reactions to perceived threats posed by their rivals’ attempts to rearm themselves.

This helps to explain why many South Korean defense analysts and ROK Air Force officers are outraged by the Park Geun-hye Administration’s decision to stick with plans to purchase the F-15SE. In a recent telephone interview, a friend of mine of who is a retired ROK Air Force major told me that the ROK’s  purchase of F-15SE is akin to  “buying premium DOS Operating System instead of purchasing Windows 8.” In other words, some ROK defense analysts and many of its Air Force officers believe that the F-15 series is obsolescent and does not measure up to Japan’s planned purchase of the F-35 or China’s indigenous production of the J-20.

But in order 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. The ROK’s  $31.8 billion defense budget pales in comparison to China’s $166 billion. And it is still substantially smaller than Japan’s $46.4 billion. Exacerbating this problem is the current administration’s reluctance to increase the ROK defense budget in the face of decreasing tax revenues and soaring welfare expenditure.

No matter which stealth fighter the ROK chooses, the ROK’s defense budget is inadequate to achieve strategic and tactical air parity with its rivals or tip the regional balance of power in its favor.

Despite the fiscal constraints imposed by the Park Geun-hye Administration, there are alternative solutions the ROK can consider to meet its strategic needs.

One option would be to delay purchasing a new aircraft. This option would give Lockheed Martin time to enter mass production of the aircraft, at which time it might be able to offer a more affordable price.  Lockheed has pledged to “work with the U.S. government on its offer of the F-35 fighter for [the ROK].” But if that offer does not translate into cheaper unit costs, it is meaningless. Even if Seoul agrees to buy the F-35, the structural disarmament that could result combined with budget shortfalls could cripple the ROK Air Force’s operational readiness.

Another option would be to reduce the size and budget of the ROK Army to accommodate the purchase of either the F-35 or the Eurofighter. But since the ROK Armed Forces remains Army-centric given the military threat from North Korea, this seems unlikely.  As Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies has written, “the composition, force structure and deployment of the ROK military have each remained relatively unchanged” and will remain so in the years to come.

A computer-generated concept of the proposed KFX stealth fighter (ROK Air Force)

A more pragmatic approach would be to cancel the F-X purchase program and focus on enhancing its indigenous Korean Fighter eXperimental (KFX) program first unveiled in 2011. Since both Indonesia and the United States have agreed to work with the ROK in developing the 5th generation fighter program, the proposed KFX could be less challenging and costly to develop. Such a program could mitigate structural disarmament dynamics and enable a smoother transition if the ROK can eventually afford to purchase the F-35 rather than the F-15SE.

Finally, the ROK could consider a commitment to developing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to minimize the potential strategic imbalance. In 1999, when UCAVs were still in incipient stages of development, the Executive Editor of the Air Force Magazine John A. Tirpak predicted  that “the UCAV could be smaller and stealthier than a typical fighter…[all at one-third the cost of an] F-35.” Indeed, the ROK plans to revive the “once-aborted program to develop mid-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAV) to bolster its monitoring capabilities of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.”

Contrary to the popular belief among many South Korean defense analysts, the ROK cannot come up with the defense budget to match its rivals. So long as that’s true, the type of stealth fighter chosen will have little or no effect on the ROK’s ability to achieve strategic and tactical air parity with its neighbors. The ROK can, however, avoid severe gaps in air power stemming from potential structural disarmament by reexamining the development of indigenous stealth fighters and UCAVs.

This article was originally published on RealClearDefense and is cross-posted by permission.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.

More Than Meets the Eye in Asian Naval Race

(NoteThis 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 theUnited States to “manage its alliances and strategic partnerships in the region.”

Izumo

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.

First, it should be noted that Japan’s 4.68 trillion yen  budget ($46.4 billion) pales incomparison to China’s raw defense budget of $166 billion. Though Japan’s recent 40 billion yen ($410 million) increase in its defense budget has been construed by some in neighboring states as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish agenda, Japan’s defense budget is relatively modestwhen compared to that of China’s,  and  hence, insufficient to tip the regional security balance in their favor.

That said, the launching of Japan’s newest ship has provoked controversy over what kind of ship the Izumo really is. Whether the Izumo is a STOBAR (Short-Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), VSTOL (Vertical Short Take-Off and Landing), or CATOBAR (Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) type “aircraft carrier” hardly matters. The reason why some of Japan’s neighbors are upset about the Izumo is the fear that Japan may eventually field an F-35B squadron on the ship. In short, it is not Japan’s current capabilities that are provoking uneasiness, but its future naval might.

Indeed, Beijing and Seoul have accused Abe of attempting to repeal the war-renunciation clause within the existing constitution in favor of the “establishment of an army, navy and air force in name.” But both China and South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) share blame for upping the ante for the ongoing naval race.

As Robert Farley, an assistant professor of the Patterson School, noted a few days ago, the Izumo was “hardly the only naval aviation news to emerge over the past week [since]photographic evidence seems to indicate that China is well on its way to a second, indigenous carrier, this one sporting full catapults.”

Not to be left out, the ROK Navy has become a great regional naval power in itself. Like the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, the ROKN also fields an amphibious assault ship, the Dokdo, with a 653 feet-long (199 meters) flight deck. It should be noted that the ship, whichcan supposedly deploy a Marine infantry battalion for any contingencies as they arise, is named after disputed islands claimed by both the ROK and Japan. 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.

ROKS Kim Jwa-jin

While it may be easy to suppose the three East Asian naval powers may be harboring expansionist tendencies, it may also be the case that each is looking to defend its own interests. Indeed, if we trace the origins of this naval race, we can discern that defense budget increases—or  for that matter, acquisition of improved capabilities—by the three East Asian countries were reactions to perceived threats posed by their rivals’ attempts to rearm themselves. Thus, the three states can and should adopt “trust building” diplomatic measures to avert a disastrous regional war.

But the bases for mutual trust remain flimsy at best. Contrary to Trefor Moss’s assertion that neither Japan nor China will go to war because of economic interdependence, economic interdependence does not necessarily translate to trust and cooperation. Furthermore, as Taylor Washburn argues, “major powers have often clashed without escalation.”

Considering the obvious distrust that pervades among the three East Asian naval powers, it is not difficult to understand why I have previously argued that taming the East Asian naval race may require America’s continued diplomatic presence as a disinterested mediator. The United States can no longer afford to appear inflexible in the face of fluid geostrategic dynamics and unrelenting sequestration cuts. Nor can it afford to alienate China by implementing “pivot to Asia” strategy. Not only that, but “leading from behind” to tame the ongoing East Asian naval race just may be the most cost effective way in which to exercise influence in the region.

But most importantly, through this newfound role as peacemaker, the United States can set an example as a peace-loving democratic nation committed to promoting good will within East Asia and to the rest of the world.