Anyone doubting the vastness of US military might – and the breadth of its reach – should consider a trip to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.
There, 64 kilometers south of Seoul near the country’s west coast, is the newly-established central hub for the 28,500 US troops tasked with defending South Korea from a North Korean attack.
It is the centerpiece of plans first formulated in the late 1990s to move US troops away from the DMZ and out of their intrusive Yongsan base in central Seoul, while also consolidating dozens of bases countrywide.
While DMZ front-line defense is now largely the responsibility of South Korea’s 618,000-strong armed forces, US Forces Korea, or USFK, comprises largely a logistics, reinforcement, air and intelligence command rather than a ground combat unit.
But a glance at a map shows that US deployments in South Korea may not only be aimed at deterring North Korea.
Big base, big price
The expansion of Camp Humphreys, an existing base, to its present colossal size started in 2004. It cost US$10.7 billion – of which 90% was paid for by local taxpayers. Former USFK Commander General Vincent Brooks called it a “great gift” from South Korea.
The anti-Americanism of the past – there were massive demonstrations after two schoolgirls were killed in a road accident by US troops in 2002 – is dormant. Today’s Koreans appreciate this alliance footprint.
Even so, a US civilian employee said that given the stratospheric costs of real estate in Seoul, Humphreys represented a decent trade for Yongsan and other bases nationwide.
There are still cranes standing and plenty of empty lots, but the base, home to 45,600 residents – the US military is accompanied by a second army of family members and civilian contractors – is nearly done.
Its 3,400 acres could accommodate 29 Yankee Stadiums, said Chad Carrol, an affable US Army officer who guided journalists around the base. Also, it “would overlay a good part of Washington DC” were it somehow to be air-lifted Stateside.
Considered the biggest base outside continental US, it is “the biggest cantonment in the Pacific,” Carrol said.
A division-sized force of construction workers – 15,000 men in hard hats – was mobilized to build it. The result is a cross between Anywheresville in small town America and a Spielberg movie set.
“Small-town” America is, of course, relative. The base’s sheer size makes it pedestrian-hostile. “There are lots of shuttle buses,” Carroll said. “Soldiers get the schedule down to a T.”
Humphreys boasts three schools, a library, a hospital – complete with a medical campus, chapels and baseball pitches. Signs warn: “Safety begins with teamwork!”
Enlisted men’s accommodation consists of fortress-like blocks of multi-story barracks, while the married quarters look more like middle-class Korean apartment blocks. Rank hath its privileges. The general officers’ housing – and in this rear-echelon base, there are generals aplenty – is a village of villa-style houses overlooking a golf course.
“I hear it’s pretty nice in there,” said Carrol, a mere colonel, wistfully. “But I have never been in!”
For leisure, there is an 18-hole golf course complete with water obstacles, two cinemas and a 48-lane bowling alley. A 300,000-square-foot PX caters to shopping missions, while all-American dining brands – Krispy Kreme, Burger King, Arby’s, etc – are widely deployed.
Are America’s fighting men bloating up under this bombardment of unwholesome food? Fret not. The only traffic jam encountered was at the huge base gym – proof that swollen biceps, buff delts and washboard abs are as essential to US Spartans as helmet, rifle and pack.
There is even a water park. A dual-use facility for Navy SEALs training to take down North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on his yacht? “There is nothing tactical about it,” laughs Carrol. “Lots of bright colors!”
What is missing is aesthetics. Everything is brutally functional. The flat base with its dusty color scheme is splashed with minimal vegetation and offers little to please the eye. That contrasts with Yongsan – which, with its lawns, bungalows and tree-lined streets, recalls a US college town.
This points to the fact that Camp Humphreys is first and foremost a military facility.
There are indoor and outdoor firing ranges, a grenade range, a cross-country driving course and an obstacle course. Fleets of military vehicles – trucks of various models and countless Humvees – sit in the various motor pools. Inside a fenced-off airstrip squat dual-rotor Chinook transport helicopters and a squadron of insect-like attack choppers.
Given that the base could anticipate heavy missile and commando attacks in the event of hostilities, buildings appear solid and Patriot Anti-Missile batteries point ominously skyward.
Attack helicopters constantly buzz overhead, their electronic surveillance suites providing eyes in the sky. “Force protection was a key consideration in this base,” Carrol said.
But bar a fence topped with coils of razor wire, the base perimeter looks lightly protected. It is overlooked by low hills surmounted by trees and local civilian housing and there are no watchtowers or foot patrols.
It is not walled off like Yongsan – where a rump US presence will remain even after the land is returned to Seoul – or the last major US combat base north of the capital, Camp Casey in Dongducheon, home to the US 2nd Infantry Division.
That skeleton force – it comprises one foot brigade rather than three, but maintains full complements of artillery and armour – guards the “Uijiongbu Corridor” – a strategic valley with road and rail links that feed into Seoul.
Camp Humphreys is well beyond the range of North Korea’s artillery and tactical rockets above the DMZ. On Korea’s west coast, it would receive and organize incoming US reinforcements should North Korea go for broke.
The other key port, through which reinforcements would arrive from Okinawa and Japan, is Busan on the southwest coast.
Critically, Humphreys is only one of three key military facilities in the Pyeongtaek area.
A railhead inside the base links it to the South Korean railway network and the nearby Pyeongtaek Port on the Yellow Sea – home to a South Korean naval base from which US naval units frequently exercise with their Korean counterparts.
Twenty kilometers north of Humphreys is Osan Air Base, home to the powerful 7th Air Force – USFK’s key aerial component. And some 80 km down the coast from Pyeongtaek is another US air base at Gunsan, housing F16 fighters and drones.
This air-sea-land hub serves a purpose. “If conflict were to break out, one thing is throwing personnel and supplies in, the other is getting people – the non-combatants – out with ships and aircraft,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University.
Even so, the ostensible reason Camp Humphreys – an existing base – was chosen for massive expansion was the availability of land with minimal civil disturbance. “That is where the Koreans said they could displace the smallest number of people and have a base the size we needed,” said Steve Tharp, a Seoul-based retired US Army colonel.
Yet, location is everything. The first consideration in South Korean strategic geography is the DMZ – and in order to deter an attack over that, one might reasonably anticipate US forces to be deployed on an east-west, terrestrial axis. But a glance at the map shows that many of the key US forces – together with their South Korean allies – are deployed in a north-south axis down the Yellow Sea coast.
While the Japan-US alliance is perfectly sited to dominate the Sea of Japan, the above-mentioned assets mean the South Korea-US alliance is equally well-sited to overview the entry and egress of vessels into and out of the Yellow Sea.
On that sea lies Nampo, the port serving Pyongyang, and the Chinese naval shipbuilding facility at Dalian, where China’s first domestic aircraft carrier was built. Dalian has long been strategic. It was formerly known as Port Arthur – site of bloody land and sea battles during the Russo-Japanese War.
As far as Seoul is concerned, USFK’s task is to defend South Korea against North Korea. But the US Army calls Humphreys “the largest power-projection platform in the Pacific” and its location grants an apparent dual purpose.
While US forces in Osan, Pyeongtaek and Gunsan do, indeed, confront North Korea with defense in depth down the peninsula’s key western communications corridor, they are also well deployed to monitor the eastern seaboard of the key US competitor in continental Asia: China
The siting of the mighty base at Pyeontaek was done “for practical reasons, as much as anything,” said Tharp – citing the fact that during the Korean War, most US troops fought in the west, South Korean forces in east, leaving as a legacy a string of American bases on the left of the peninsula.
But he added: “I am sure there were clever people who saw this.”