The Korea Herald


Expectations grow for S. Korea-US cooperation in military logistics, MRO

By Yonhap

Published : July 6, 2024 - 11:35

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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon on Tuesday in Arlington, Virginia. (Getty Images) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon on Tuesday in Arlington, Virginia. (Getty Images)

Beyond their trade in flashy weapons, South Korea and the United States appear to be headed for close cooperation in a lesser-known, yet crucial defense area: military logistics and maintenance particularly in the event of a regional crisis.

Seoul and Washington signed an arrangement in November to prioritize the supply of defense materials and goods to each other. They have also been seeking to ink a reciprocal defense procurement agreement designed to curtail trade barriers.

The efforts on such deals are likely to pave the way for defense industrial and logistical cooperation in broad terms, observers said, at a time when the wartime imperative to ensure a sustainable and swift supply of military products has been highlighted since Russia's war of attrition in Ukraine.

The endeavors are also in line with Washington's "regional sustainment framework," an initiative announced in May to leverage regional allies and partners to ensure logistical readiness in a potentially contested area far away from the US mainland, such as the Taiwan Strait.

For that framework, observers said that South Korea can be an optimal partner given its technological edge, manufacturing capability, high level of interoperability with US military equipment and culture of close-knit cooperation under the alliance.

"Logistically, distance and interoperability are important considerations, and South Korea checks both those boxes," Eric Heginbotham, a principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies, told Yonhap News Agency via email.

"It is close to potential conflict areas, hosts US bases, and operates with equipment that is identical to or similar to that of US forces. Thus, even if the United States were not able to conduct combat operations from South Korea, the ROK might nevertheless serve as a critically important logistical base," he added.

ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.

During a forum last month, Douglas Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, highlighted the need and potential for defense logistics cooperation with South Korea, saying collaboration in that area would be a "win-win" effort that helps enhance deterrence.

"The importance of having things forward with our allies on the ground in place rather than having to rely on very long supply chains back to the US, especially in a conflict, and building up those stocks, repair parts, repair capability and ammunition stores is both deterrence but also would help overcome fighting a sophisticated enemy who attacked our supply chains and our supply routes," he said.

The US' pursuit of close collaboration with South Korea and other allies comes against the backdrop of China's continued territorial claims in the South China Sea and its tensions with Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy claimed by Beijing.

Despite America's still potent military presence in the Indo-Pacific, questions have lingered over whether it can effectively conduct and sustain its combat operations should a conflict flare up in an area closer to China's shores.

In the midst of such questions, the Pentagon announced the regional sustainment framework, stressing its vision to establish a "globally connected, resilient, defense ecosystem through collaborative regional sustainment strategies."

Intrinsic to the framework is deeper cooperation with regional allies, partners and industry stakeholders, including South Korea and Japan, in the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) arena, observers pointed out.

"Traditional methods that depend on retrograding materiel for repair and maintenance are no longer viable," the foreword of the framework document read.

"To better meet the challenge and needs of our warfighters, we must establish distributed maintenance and repair capabilities closer to the point of need, thereby posturing our theaters of operation to capitalize on allies and partners' capabilities," it added.

To deepen cooperation in defense supply chains, Seoul and Washington signed the Security of Supply Arrangement (SOSA) in November to enable both countries to acquire the industrial resources they need to quickly meet defense requirements.

The arrangement reflected a convergence of the two sides' interests at a time when Seoul needs to ensure its defense readiness to counter evolving North Korean threats, while Washington seeks to reinforce its network of regional alliances amid heightened global security uncertainties.

The SOSA signing came after President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden agreed to strengthen partnerships in defense supply chains during their bilateral summit in Seoul in May 2022.

South Korea and the US have also been pushing to sign a Reciprocal Defense Procurement agreement to reduce trade barriers and boost bilateral exchanges. Seoul has been eyeing the conclusion of the negotiations on the RDP agreement before the US presidential election in November.

In a notice on the Federal Register, the Pentagon said the purpose of an RDP Agreement is to promote rationalization, standardization, interchangeability and interoperability of conventional defense equipment with allies -- a point that raised the prospects of deeper cooperation in logistics areas.

But the allies' efforts for institutionalized cooperation were not without a setback.

Talks over the RDP agreement have faced an unexpected hurdle as US lawmakers called for a review to ensure that such a pact will not negatively affect America's manufacturing and its workers.

"It may take a while for the US to utilize Korean defense industry more fully, especially given US concerns for US jobs," Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp., told Yonhap News Agency via email.

"And Korea has for a very long time purchased US products like the F-35, so the relationship is mutual. But I think both the US and the ROK will want to make sure that the relationship remains mutual."

Among areas for cooperation, US officials have expressed particular interest in the potential for collaboration in the shipbuilding sector.

Adding to that potential, Hanwha Group has recently invested $100 million in Philly Shipyard Inc. to acquire a 100 percent stake in the key US shipbuilder, marking the first entry of a South Korean company into the US shipbuilding industry.

US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro welcomed Hanwha's acquisition of the shipbuilder as a "game-changing" milestone, as he has stressed the need to strengthen America's shipbuilding capabilities amid its intensifying competition with China.

"In fact, I think you are already seeing this (cooperation) with shipbuilding," Bennett said. "Hanwha purchased the Philadelphia Naval shipyard, and both Hanwha and Hyundai are apparently making contracts with the US Navy to provide ship repairs and upgrades in Korean shipyards -- and they will likely do new US Navy shipbuilding in Korean shipyards eventually." (Yonhap)