Commentary

ROK/US combined training protects integrity of the OPCON transition process

The ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (ROK/U.S. CFC) completed its first theater-level training in more than a year on Aug. 28. An assessment of initial open-source reporting suggests that the recent training event, known as the Combined Command Post Training (CCPT), was successful in three major areas: promoting readiness, ensuring the ability to fight amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and protecting the integrity of the wartime operational control (OPCON) transition process from a U.S. to a Korean general officer.

Although the training itself is classified and the press and public do not have access to the results, the use of a complex computer simulation — based on past experience — likely provided the necessary training environment to prepare for defending South Korea from an attack by the North Korean People’s Army. Through an intense two-week training period, all commanders and staff had to become proficient in all aspects of planning, intelligence, and execution of the defense plans. This training will provide the foundation for readiness until the next CCPT event in the winter/spring of 2021.

Unfortunately, the ROK/U.S. CFC had cancelled the previous CCPT scheduled for February and March due to COVID-19, contributing to a decline in readiness. The August training helped ameliorate the issue.

Both the Korean and U.S. militaries established procedures to protect the force from the coronavirus while still continuing to conduct robust training. Six U.S. service members arrived in Korea between Aug. 10 and 21 and tested positive for the virus. Military personnel took appropriate action to isolate and treat those service members and prevent the spread of the virus throughout the command.

Although the ROK/U.S. CFC could have decided to halt the training to prevent a widespread outbreak, the mitigation measures taken by the command proved effective. This is an important lesson for the future: The virus is likely to persist for months if not years to come, but training can and must continue throughout the pandemic.

The most controversial training success was the protection of the integrity of the OPCON transition process. Before the exercises, the plan was to conduct a Full Operational Capability (FOC) evaluation during this training, which entails an assessment of whether CFC would be able to accomplish the majority of assigned mission essential tasks (MET) under the command of Korean general officer. However, the leadership scrubbed this plan to ensure the command could meet its priority responsibilities of deterrence and defense and to be ready to “fight tonight.” As the cancellation of the training event in February and March affected both command readiness and the OPCON transition process, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of the ROK/U.S. CFC, decided to focus on readiness.

This decision caused friction in the alliance, because there are two competing visions for the transition process: conditions-based versus timeline-based. Both ROK and U.S. military leaders agreed that the OPCON transition would require the fulfillment of three conditions: (1) Seoul’s capability to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism; (2) sufficient South Korean capacity for initial responses to the North’s nuclear and missile threats; and (3) a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region. Despite this agreement, South Korean President Moon Jae-in favors a timeline-based transition to ensure the process is complete before he leaves office in 2022. Because the CFC did not conduct the FOC evaluation during this CCPT event, a timeline-based transition may not be achievable unless aggressive training takes place in the coming months and year.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, not conducting the FOC evaluation actually protects the integrity of the OPCON transition process for two reasons. First, due to the canceled training in February and March, the command had not been able to train to execute the majority of the METs required for the defense of Korea under the command of a Korean general officer. It would have been irresponsible for the command to conduct a premature evaluation, since a failure to meet FOC at this time would undermine the credibility of the future ROK/U.S. CFC.

On the other hand, if the command conducted the FOC evaluation under pressure solely to meet Moon’s desired timeline, it would also have detrimental effects. A rushed process could force the command to simply run through evaluation motions without rigorous assessment, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the OPCON transition process. No ROK or U.S. military professional could provide a rubber stamp for FOC assessment. To do so would be the height of military irresponsibility and put South Korean security at grave risk.

The dispute over the OPCON transition process touches on some more profound tensions, as some ROK officials believe the United States is trying to slow or prevent the OPCON transition process. They cite the increase from 90 to 155 METs that the ROK/U.S. CFC needs to evaluate and accuse the United States of being too strict in the evaluation process.

These decisions are not political, however. Rather, military professionals determine these requirements based on the criteria for ensuring the successful defense of South Korea against a North Korean attack. A future ROK/U.S. CFC led by a South Korean general officer must be proficient in all identified METs to successfully accomplish the assigned mission.

Yet there is a way ahead that can meet the necessary conditions and possibly the desired timeline. The ROK/U.S. CFC can conduct the FOC during the winter/spring training event and the Full Mission Capability (executing all required METs) during next summer’s CCPT in August 2021. However, to do this effectively, aggressive training is necessary between these two major events. The timeline will be compressed, so the ROK/U.S. CFC must conduct more intensive local training of headquarters and component staffs at home stations to ensure preparation for the evaluations.

It is possible to conduct the certifications necessary for OPCON transition before the end of the Moon administration. However, it must also be kept in mind that this is a conditions-based process, and all the conditions have to be met to complete the transition.

The bottom line is that not conducting the FOC certification during the CCPT was a smart move and not one designed to hinder the process. The ROK and U.S. combined military keeps readiness as its No. 1 priority to accomplish its assigned tasks both now and for the future ROK/U.S. CFC. ROK political leaders must recognize as much, and the press, pundits, and public should respect it, since the security of South Korea is on the line.

The United States has no intention to walk back and prevent the OPCON transition. The OPCON transition provides more benefits than risk and constitutes the natural evolution of the alliance, demonstrating it is a true partnership. The transition sends a message of trust in and respect for Korean military leaders.

The transition ensures that any operation into North Korea is led by a Korean general officer, thereby reducing the perception that the United States is an occupier of the North. Following either war or instability and regime collapse, the military will need to support the political process of unification, and that military support must be led by a Korean general officer. The United States can and must provide support, but the path to a United Republic of Korea must be a Korean one and led by Koreans.

The only way to ensure readiness and sustain the OPCON transition process is through good, professional military training. This summer, the ROK/U.S. CFC demonstrated its readiness and its ability to “fight through” the pandemic. The OPCON transition process will continue, and both sides can make it work and serve the interests of the alliance through sustained training.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe here. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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