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‘Act first’ order’s limits exposed

Critics say field commanders have limited authority to handle emergencies


The military directive by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to “act first and report later” is not applicable to air-to-ground operations, officials said Sunday, triggering concerns that this could limit the Air Force’s ability to handle emergency situations.

According to military procedure, only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can issue an order to fire air-to-surface missiles mounted on fighter jets such as F-15Ks and KF-16s.

This makes Air Force commanders or fighter pilots with more knowledge and situational awareness of aerial operations unable to take swift, timely action in case of another North Korean provocation or armed conflict, critics said.

The combat aircraft carry weapons that are critical to attack key ground-based targets in the North including long-range artillery hidden in caves and coastal cannons.

The weapons systems include AGM-84H missiles with a range of 278 kilometers, AGM-142 missiles with a range of 105 kilometers and GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition.

Following a series of provocations by the North, calls have mounted for the military to allow field commanders to act promptly in emergency cases rather than getting approval from higher authorities.

Since he took office in December last year after the deadly artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November, Kim has sought to give more authority to field troop leaders to make decisions based on their real-time judgment of battle situations.

“A decision on air-to-surface attacks in the North should involve highly political considerations given that such an attack could escalate into a full-blown war. This may be part of the reason why the JCS chief holds the authority to issue the order,” a military official said, declining to be named.

Although the JCS chief has the authority to order an aerial attack, the chief of the Air Force operations has the right to dispatch fighter jets with air-to-surface missiles. Some pointed out this “two-way” structure appears “complicated, inefficient.”

Even after Seoul retakes wartime operational control from Washington in December 2015, the U.S. Seventh Air Force commander will have to gain approval from the South Korean JCS chief for air-to-ground attacks, officials said.

After the OPCON transfer, the combined South Korea-U.S. Air Force will be led by the commander of the U.S. Seventh Air Force during wartime as the U.S. would mobilize its massive aerial assets during wartime.

Unlike air-to-surface missions, the commander of the Air Force operations leads air-to-air missions.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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