A key military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea will go ahead next year — but in a diminished form, in order to not interfere with ongoing political negotiations with North Korea.
“We are not cancelling exercises,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. “Foal Eagle is being reorganized a bit to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy.”
Mattis later added that the exercises are being “reduced in scope," but did not give details on actual numbers.
Foal Eagle represents one of the two biggest annual exercises between the U.S. and the ROK, with the 2018 edition involving roughly 11,500 U.S. troops and 290,000 South Korean troops. The exercise covers air, land and naval coordination, making it perhaps the closest representation to what the two nations would be doing if war broke out with North Korea.
The news comes roughly a month after the Pentagon officially suspended another joint exercise known as Vigilant Ace, an annual December air exercise involving more than 12,000 forces.
As part of the Trump administration’s outreach to North Korea, President Donald Trump last June pulled the plug on near-term military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, deriding them as “war games.” North Korea has long sought the cancellation of such joint exercises, which it views as provocative in the region.
At the time, the pause in the joint training exercise was cast as temporary, something of a carrot-and-stick approach for good behavior from Pyongyang.
But since then, the Pentagon has cancelled or limited further exercises — sometimes with mixed messaging. Such was the case in August, when Mattis told reporters there were “no plans, at this time, to suspend any more exercises” on the Korean Peninsula before Trump took to Twitter and shot down the idea of restarting the exercises.
Speaking on the Hill in August, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the then-nominee and now head of U.S. Forces Korea, said the pause in exercises has led to a “slight degradation” of readiness, and analysts have raised concerns that cancelling exercises into 2019 would increasingly impact America’s preparedness for conflict in the region.
Mattis, for his part, has previously downplayed the impact on readiness from hitting pause on the exercises, in part because a number of smaller exercises have continued between the U.S. and ROK. If Foal Eagle is “reorganized” in that manner, it could take the form of several lower-level events, perhaps down at the battalion level.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.