For the second time in the span of a year, the Trump administration has suspended large-scale military training exercises with the South Korean military and may permanently cancel exercises involving field maneuvers. The hope is—increasingly was—that such a course of action would serve as a confidence-building step on the pathway toward North Korea’s denuclearization. Those hopes are not bearing fruit, which makes the suspension or phaseout of large-scale U.S.-ROK maneuvers unwise and risky.
Describing the exercises as “very expensive,” President Donald Trump earlier this year seemed to question the usefulness of joint maneuvers with the ROK. “Exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games,” he said glibly. “I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because, at some levels, it is. But at other levels, it’s not.” Equally worrisome, he called the exercises “very provocative.”
To get a sense of just how unwise and risky this course of action is, let’s consider the labels Trump has used to describe the U.S.-ROK exercises.
Although they are sometimes described by civilians as “war games,” military training exercises have nothing to do with “play” or “fun,” to borrow the president’s phraseology. In fact, they are deadly serious, and they are an essential element of America’s military deterrent.
What really separates the U.S. military from its adversaries (and even most of its allies) is not so much technology, but training and readiness. Like a muscle that’s left unused or underused, a military force that does not train in the field will atrophy and weaken over time. Exercises like Key Resolve and Foal Eagle prevent that by: testing interoperability between the U.S. and ROK militaries and among multiple branches of those militaries; putting personnel, equipment and logistics lines into real-world situations; and exposing problems, blind spots and gaps.
“Table-top and computer simulations cannot replicate what happens in live-fire training exercises,” as an Army veteran who commanded an armored personnel carrier in Germany during the Cold War and in Iraq during Desert Storm recently explained to me. “You need to hear the gunfire and tank fire.”
He also notes that battlefield drills “help identify weak points with equipment, maintenance issues and logistics,” “ensure consistency,” and “prepare you for the fog of war, when you can’t pull out a notebook to solve a problem.”
Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO military commander, adds that military exercises help bridge “cultural and linguistic gaps in alliance structures.” Calling the decision to suspend the exercises in South Korea “a mistake,” he worries about “a significant degradation in U.S. and ROK war-fighting readiness.”
Indeed, this suspension of maneuvers flies in the face of two American military maxims: Train like we fight, and be ready to fight tonight. If U.S.-ROK forces are not allowed to do the former, they will not be able to do the latter.
But don’t take my word for it. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea and UN Command Korea, concedes that Washington’s decision to suspend and scale back military exercises in South Korea has led to a “slight degradation” of U.S.-ROK capability to “fight tonight.”
As to costs, a battlefield exercise in South Korea—which can involve as many as 20,000 American troops and 300,000 South Korean troops—costs the U.S. about $14 million. That’s not even a rounding error for a nation with a $21-trillion GDP, $4.4-trillion budget and $717-billion annual defense outlay.
Trump’s focus on costs is a function of his belief that America’s allies are free-riders. Indeed, during his campaign for the presidency, he argued that South Korea and other allies “don't pay a fair share” for the defense “we are providing.”
While some allies can do more, it’s worth noting that South Korea spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on defense—more, as a percent of GDP, than Australia or Britain or France or Germany or Turkey, double what Canada spends, almost triple what Japan spends.
It’s worth noting that South Korea pays the U.S. $924 million annually to support America’s presence south of the 38th Parallel (a presence that includes 28,500 American personnel).
It’s worth noting that South Korea shouldered more than 90 percent of the costs to build a new $10.8-billion base south of Seoul (the largest U.S. overseas military base).
And it’s worth noting that when America asked South Korea for help in its post-9/11 campaign of campaigns, more than 20,000 ROK troops cycled through Iraq to support the U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s terrorist tyranny. South Korea sent a 500-man infantry battalion to Afghanistan. South Korea has lost personnel on both fronts.
Most important, the costs of training and preparing for war in Korea have to be weighed against the costs of waging war in Korea. The Korean War claimed 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans, 422,000 Chinese and some 2 million civilians. Today, North Korea deploys dozens of nuclear weapons, 13,600 artillery pieces/rocket-launch systems and hundreds of missiles. It’s expected that every third round fired by North Korea would be a chemical weapon. Even a short war, even a conflict contained to the peninsula, would trigger, in Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. James Dunford’s estimation, “a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.” The Pentagon has projected more than 200,000 U.S.-ROK military casualties in the first 90 days.
In short, Trump’s approach seems to be the very definition of “pennywise pound foolish.”
Trump’s use of the term “provocative” to describe a pre-planned, annual military exercise to test how the U.S-ROK force would defend South Korea is puzzling.
Second, it suggests that the U.S. and ROK are somehow acting aggressively and seeking to provoke the North. This is not true. North Korea began the Korean War by invading the South. In the years since, the Kim Dynasty has kidnapped South Korean citizens, brutally murdered American servicemen, seized American vessels, fired missiles through Japanese airspace and into South Korean waters, sunk South Korean ships, tunneled under the DMZ, shelled South Korean territory, tortured an American student, conducted assassinations on foreign soil, added tanks and rockets to its arsenal while its people starve, and illegally developed and tested nuclear weapons.
Put another way, responding to provocation—and outright aggression—is not provocative. It’s rational.
Far from provoking war, military exercises help prevent war. Indeed, peace-loving nations such as the U.S. and ROK train for war in order to prevent war. Weakness and unpreparedness are far more provocative than pre-announced military exercises.
For proof of this, look no further than the Korean Peninsula on the eve of the Korean War. Historian Derek Leebaert details the astonishing numbers: Each division of the Eighth Army (responsible for Japan and Korea) was a thousand rifles short. The Fifth Air Force (responsible for Japan and Korea) had no jet-powered aircraft. And there were just 500 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea. Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung took note—and lunged across the 38th Parallel.
Confidence-building measures, compromises and concessions have their place in statecraft. But the concessions Trump has made in his North Korea gambit—and make no mistake, suspending large-scale U.S.-ROK military training exercises and meeting with North Korea’s leader are major concessions—have yielded precious little in return from the North Korean side.
While Pyongyang has not test-fired rockets or detonated nukes in a while—which is indeed welcome news—it continues to launch cyberattacks against industry and government agencies in the U.S. and South Korea, continues to modify and construct missile-launch facilities, and continues to produce uranium and plutonium (enough in the past year for at least six additional nuclear weapons). Indeed, Pyongyang recently hinted that its moratorium on nuclear tests and missile tests will soon come to an end.
America’s forward-deployed military forces help defend U.S. interests and allies, promote regional stability, and maintain some semblance of international order. It’s difficult to see how Trump’s decision to suspend and perhaps cancel large-scale exercises in South Korea serves those objectives.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.