US and South Korean troops take part in joint military training exercises earlier this year. Photo: Seung-il Ryu / NurPhoto
US and South Korean troops take part in joint military training exercises in 2018. Photo: Seung-il Ryu / NurPhoto

A heated debate is currently animating the community of retired South Korean generals, who – unlike their active-duty counterparts – are free to speak out. The debate focuses on how ready South Korea is to command joint South Korean-US forces, and whether the current Seoul administration is eroding domestic defense capabilities.

It is a long debate and a long story. However, the massive scale of Seoul’s defense-spending commitments suggests impressive capability upgrades, while the current Moon Jae-in administration seems determined to command joint forces.

Taking control

It was under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008) that the initiative to transfer wartime operational control of South Korean troops from US command to local command – so-called “OPCON transfer” – kicked off.

Although the issue would appear to be a sign of increasing national confidence and maturity, during the Roh years, both Seoul and Washington assumed that South Korea’s military was unprepared for the transfer, indicating a long lead period before it could be achieved.

Moreover, multiple criticisms were aimed at the plan: rapid changes in the strategic environment; the potential weakening of combined deterrence; and ineffective capability buildup by South Korean forces.

After Roh left office, conservative administrations took power in Seoul for a decade, and the issue of OPCON transfer languished. When the liberal Moon Jae-in took office in Seoul in 2017, OPCON was resurrected – with a vengeance.

Moon called for a “self-reliant” defense strategy during his presidential campaign and is currently pushing OPCON transfer hard. His intention is to construct a system under which South Korea leads the existing Combined Forces Command (CFC) of South Korean and US troops on the peninsula.

While there is still no official date set for OPCON transfer, various milestones on the path toward it are now being passed.

In August, the first initial operational capabilities assessment was completed through a combined command-post exercise. The results will be discussed between the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and his US counterpart at the 44th Military Committee Meeting on November 14.

With a full operational-capabilities assessment planned for 2020, informed persons now expect OPCON transfer before Moon exits the presidency in April 2022.

Does Seoul’s military have the capabilities, assets and experience to handle the transfer?

Hey, big spender

Moon has adopted Defense Reform 2.0  to advance South Korea’s joint-operation assets in the areas of missile defense, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and operations equipment.

This has plunged Seoul into a massive shopping spree.

The South Korean army, downsizing in sync with the country’s demographic downturn, has consolidated its force structure and begun to employ reserve manpower to fill positions partly in reserve infantry divisions. But while downsizing the size of the regular force, capabilities are being upgraded through advanced technology and equipment acquisitions.

The army has fully operationalized its armored infantry vehicles into an organizational model that resembles the Stryker brigades of the United States. C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computer, ISR) capabilities have also been improved with the adoption of newer radio communication devices. Reconnaissance drone systems have been assigned to all subunits of infantry divisions.

New devices will fully overcome current communications insufficiencies and will have the ability to act as automatic relays in the network. To counter the fast artillery advances of North Korea, the South’s army plans to assign two or three 240mm multiple-launch rocket systems to its infantry divisions.

The ROK Navy will increase its fleets from two to three with a focus on A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) capabilities, which synchronize missile, sensor, guidance, and related technologies to deny freedom of movement to an enemy.

And to upgrade joint and aerial operations, the ROK Air Force plans to purchase a total of 40 F-35A stealth fighters by 2021.

Regarding missile defense, South Korea seeks to enhance its low-tier missile network, through the Korea Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD). Under this, Seoul plans to acquire two more ground-based anti-missile early-warning radars and three more Aegis-equipped destroyers by 2028. Improved versions of interceptors like the PAC-3 and Cheolmae-II missiles will enhance interception capabilities.

Retired Major-General Jung Soo, who heads Seoul’s Institute of Defense Management at Kookmin University, said South Korea also seeks to acquire three more early-warning aircraft and will continue development of its first weaponized drone unit.

Moreover, Seoul plans to acquire five spy satellites by 2023 and deploy mid- and high-altitude unmanned reconnaissance planes. Yet more items on Moon’s list include maritime operation helicopters and short-range surface-to-surface guided weapons. Nuclear submarines are reportedly also under consideration.

Via these upgrades, the Moon administration is signaling to two very different players – North Korea and the US – that South Korea is serious about overcoming any weaknesses in its armory when taking over OPCON.

This does not come cheap. South Korean taxpayers will shell out a staggering US$239 billion on defense between 2020 and 2024.

Can Korea command?

While Defense Reform 2.0 certainly suggests increased capabilities, the issue of national pre-eminence also affects OPCON transfer.

Seoul wants the transfer to happen via restructuring of the CFC. Currently, the CFC is led by a US general, with a South Korean general as his deputy. Under OPCON transfer, these roles would be reversed.

This could prove politically sensitive in Washington, where there has long been reluctance to place US troops under foreign command.

Yet despite the job titles, the transfer does not necessarily mean the two generals will have a superior-subordinate relationship. As the CFC commands two national forces, the two generals will have to advise and support each other while acting under the orders of their respective commanders-in-chief.

South Korea’s predominantly conservative retired generals have argued against the transfer for reasons of technological inferiority, combat inexperience, and fear of losing extended deterrence from the United States, but regardless of their opposition, OPCON transfer now looks like a question not of “if” but of “when.”

In light of his accommodating stance toward Pyongyang, Moon’s willingness to increase defense spending shows his seriousness toward OPCON transfer. For him, it is a legacy issue: Moon was the late president Roh’s senior secretary for civil affairs and his chief of staff.

Still, it will be impossible to know how ready Seoul is for the transfer until it actually takes place. And even then, the only real litmus test would be Korean War II – which will everyone hopes will never happen.

Abdiel Lawrence is an intelligence analyst for the United States European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He received his master’s in international peace and security from Korea University.

Jong-hwa Ahn is a Korea Foundation Non-Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum. As an officer in the Republic of Korea Army, he served in the Demilitarized Zone and with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. He received his master’s in international peace and security from Korea University, and he is also a candidate for the Master of Science in cybersecurity at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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