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[Editorial] Military reform row

Forty-three former Navy and Air Force heads collectively turned down an invitation to a Defense Ministry briefing Tuesday on an extensive defense reform plan. They were particularly dissatisfied with the proposed system to place the chief of naval operations and the Air Force chief of staff under the operational control of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Many retired Army generals are also critical of the draft Defense Reform Basic Plan 2011-2030, largely because of what they call a hasty preparation of the reform “by a handful of academics.” Seong-u-hoe, the fraternity of retired generals and admirals, has circulated a pamphlet generally opposing the military reform plan, which was drafted by a special presidential commission headed by professor Lee Sang-woo, a noted political scientist.

President Lee Myung-bak is no doubt determined to accomplish military restructuring during his tenure ending in early 2013. He believes the sinking of the patrol craft Cheonan in March last year and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea in November exposed serious flaws in the way the South Korean armed forces countered the North Korean attacks.

Major drawbacks were detected in the “interoperability” of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The process of reporting the unprovoked attacks, making decisions for counterattack and delivering operational orders through the command channel proved unnecessarily time-consuming.

Under a new system, the chiefs of the three armed services, basically hitherto administrative positions, are to be included in the operational command structure. At the top are the president, who is the commander-in-chief, and the JCS chief. While the service chiefs are to take part in the operational process, they will have to share their administrative powers with the JCS chief to the extent that they are related to operations, namely in personnel and logistic affairs.

An Army general conventionally takes the JCS chair because of the incomparably larger scale of ground forces, and the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force will then be his subordinates. This would allow the Army’s virtual control of the other two armed services in the name of improved interoperability ― the cause of objections from Navy and Air Force officers, both active and retired.

President Lee, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and other proponents of the reform have one important reason for spurring the change: the military should have enough time to introduce and familiarize the new system before South Korea fully takes over the operational control of its armed forces from the U.S. on July 4, 2015. They have set the schedule to finish the necessary revision of the military organization law by the end of June to begin restructuring sometime in November.

In the whole process, it is undeniable that the presidential office and the new defense minister, who was named shortly after the Yeonpyeong Island attack, showed some haste in overhauling a half-century-old system, though understandably in an atmosphere of urgency created by recurring North Korean provocations. Some half-baked proposals such as the establishment of a joint armed forces command and its commander under the JCS chief were revealed and withdrawn, hurting public trust in the reform efforts.

The boycott of the Defense Ministry briefing by ex-service chiefs and many retired generals is regrettable. Still, defense authorities need to make further efforts to collect expert opinions while sincerely explaining the merits of the proposals to the people concerned in and outside of the military community. The president and his staff do not have just cause to slight the retired generals’ reaction simply as an anachronism.
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