The South Korean and U.S. militaries have agreed to create a new combined command structure similar to their current decades-old apparatus after the transfer of wartime operational control slated for 2015 to maintain high security vigilance, Seoul officials said Sunday.
The agreement by the allies’ Joint Chiefs of Staffs ditched the initial plan for dissolving their Combined Forces Command and building separate command structures. But it should be endorsed by their legislatures and government leaders, the officials noted.
The plan, which virtually retains the CFC, may be finalized when the allies’ defense chiefs meet for their annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul in October, they said.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (right), U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (center) and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera pose for a photo prior to their talks at the annual Asia Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore on Saturday. (Defense Ministry)
“The current command system has been entrenched as an ideal mechanism. Thus, (South Korea and the U.S.) share the understanding that (the efforts to build a new command structure) be pushed for in this direction,” Seoul’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told reporters on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit, a gathering of defense ministers in Singapore on Saturday.
The allies initially agreed to scrap the CFC and build a cooperative body to ensure bilateral military collaboration. But amid North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile threats, they have thought twice about the original plan.
Conservatives here have increased their calls for keeping the CFC as its dissolution could embolden the North, undermine the allies’ operational efficiency and weaken U.S. security commitments. After Seoul retakes the OPCON, it will assume a leading role in wartime operations with the U.S. providing support.
Under the allies’ tentative plan, a four-star Korean general is to head the Combined Theater Command ― the envisioned command structure ― while a U.S. general will become its deputy chief.
Should it be adopted as a final version, it would virtually mark the first time for the U.S. military to be under the operational control of a foreign commander.
Under the envisioned Combined Component Commands, there would be five wings ― the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Special Ops. Only the combined air force would be led by a three-star U.S. commander, sources said, given the massive amount of U.S. aerial assets to be deployed in case of a peninsular contingency.
Seoul’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok expressed caution, stressing the plan was far from finalization.
“Although the allied militaries thought it would be an ideal form, it should go through many procedures such as getting understanding from the government as a whole, and the legislature and other political circles,” he told reporters.
“The two countries will continue to verify whether the plan has to be improved and whether it is really workable and financially feasible, and is viable in the face of increasing North Korean missile and nuclear threats and all.”
Amid escalating inter-Korean tensions, Kim and his then U.S. counterpart Leon Panetta agreed to develop a new command structure during their annual SCM talks in Washington last October. Seoul’s JCS chief Gen. Jung Seung-jo and his U.S. counterpart Gen. Martin Dempsey have agreed on the general concept of the plan.
During the allied ministers’ talks on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit, dubbed the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore Saturday, Kim and new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were expected to sign the plan for the new command apparatus. But it was delayed as they shared the need to further develop it, sources said.
“At the talks this time, the allies’ ministers did not touch on the issue of a new command structure. The final agreement on it at the level of defense ministers is expected to come at this year’s SCM,” Deputy Minister of Policy Lim Gwan-bin told reporters.
Kim Yeoul-soo, a security expert at Sungshin Women’s University, welcomed the move to virtually maintain the current CFC structure, while maintaining a wait-and-see stance over whether the plan can get the final approval in the U.S.
“In the U.S. military history, its low-level unit was once put under control of a foreign commander, but such a big unit like the U.S. Forces Korea was never under control of a foreign military. So it still remains to be seen whether the plan can be adopted as a final version,” he said.
Kim stressed that should the plan be adopted, the unified command structure would help ensure efficiency in the allies’ wartime operations.
“If there are two separate command structures in one theater, it would run counter to the war principle of unified command,” he said. “The unified command would help well organize the war plans, better deter North Korea and have other operational benefits.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)