In recent weeks, it has begun to appear the basic U.S.-Republic of Korea military command arrangement will soon change. Responding to the natural South Korean request for more responsibility in the alliance, the United States is offering to giving up its traditional role as the lead partner in the alliance. In fact, it may be willing to do so as soon as 2009, earlier than Seoul had even requested.
From press reports, the changes would apparently amount to the following. First, America’s top general in South Korea would no longer be the overall military commander of alliance forces. Second, the idea of a unified command would itself be modified or even scrapped. In other words, it would not be a question of transferring control from an American to a Korean. Rather, both sides would effectively command their own forces in any future military contingencies.
South Korea’s position seems reasonable in many ways. A sovereign country, an established democracy, the world’s 11st largest economy… all these facts argue it should not be subservient in an alliance designed for the express purpose of protecting its own territory.
In addition, by my estimates, South Korea now has one of the top 10 militaries in the world and perhaps even one of the top five. Its annual defense budget of just more than $20 billion does not compete with Japan’s, Britain’s, France’s, or Germany’s, and is well behind those of China and the United States. But it compares favorably with the official military budgets of countries such as Russia, India, and Italy. Moreover, as we have recently witnessed in Iraq, South Korea often is an important U.S. security partner beyond Northeast Asia.
Not all Americans will see the issue the same way. In the event of war in Korea, the United States would likely deploy at least one-fourth of its main combat force structure to the theater. Since the total annual cost of that force structure is now more than $400 billion (not counting expenses in Iraq), this would represent an equivalent value of more than $100 billion in annual expenditure, 4 to 5 times the effective contribution of South Korea. And while South Korea would deploy more personnel overall, America’s contribution of some half million would be enormous.
Koreans should also remember that, in many ways, they get much more out of this alliance than does the U.S. Americans are sacrificing for an alliance that would defend not them but their Korean friends in a land thousands of miles away. To be sure, we would not do this unless it were in our interest. But South Korea has an even more immediate and pressing interest in the goals of the alliance.
Perhaps some Koreans want a balanced command structure out of fear that, otherwise, the Bush administration might drag them into a war they do not want. That fear, however, ignores the nature of the military command system. It is not a national decisionmaking body on whether to go to war; it is an operational organization designed to execute policy as determined jointly by the Korean and American presidents and peoples. No American four-star general will trick South Korea into a war it does not want.
The decision on changing the command should, in my judgment, be based on military efficiency. Despite all of our aspirations for peace, the U.S.-South Korean alliance still focuses on a clear and present North Korean threat. The North’s military maintains most of its forces within easy firing range of Seoul, has developed nuclear weapons in recent years, and continues spending about 30 percent of its nation’s gross domestic product — by far the highest percentage in the world. War is very unlikely, and would be hugely undesirable — but it is not out of the question. Moreover, the chances for war could increase if North Korea sensed a weakening of the alliance or its military fighting power.
In a notional future war, perhaps South Korean and U.S. ground forces could each take separate avenues of attack, avoiding each other and minimizing the danger of a confused and disjointed command system. But what if one country’s forces wanted to move quickly on Pyongyang and the other did not? Who would decide what to do, quickly enough to ensure battlefield coordination and efficiency? Or what if separate U.S. and R.O.K. armies converged on Pyongyang nearly simultaneously and risked creating a friendly-fire hazard due to their proximity?
The problem with the air campaign could be even worse. Who would decide how to allocate scarce air assets between strategic targets and tactical targets? Who would ensure control of the airspace so U.S. and South Korean planes were not mistaking each other for the enemy, or accidentally firing at each other’s ground forces? (Such problems have occasionally arisen even in the recent international wars in Iraq, though American commanders had overall control of the operations.)
When all is said and done, this new proposed policy strikes me as a mistake. I would argue against dividing commands sharing a common, constrained, small battlespace. My own view is the United States should retain operational military command of combined forces in wartime into the indefinite future, even as Seoul and Washington clarify that the alliance’s military commander is subordinate to their combined political control.
But if we are to make the controversial decision to change command arrangements, we should work them out before committing to a new relationship.Otherwise, the U.S. and South Korea could face not only new dangers on the battlefield, but a weakening in North Korea’s perception of the alliance’s strength and of our most crucial commodity — strong deterrence against the North.
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings Institution.