“We get to put our prior training into practice, to see how it comes out, to be smooth and ready,” said Crouse, who had been flown out from Fort Lewis, Washington State, to join troops already here in two weeks of exercises with South Koreans. “It’s high speed,” said another private first class, Brian Roper, with Crouse on the same Stryker. “We don’t get this kind of training at Fort Lewis. It’s a life-time experience for me.”
The chances of anyone having to find out how the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea would really perform in combat appear minimal, however, considering that North Korea has not dared to challenge the American or South Koreans head-on since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed in July 1953.
In fact, the steady reduction of the numbers of U.S. troops, from 45,000 during the presidency of Richard Nixon to 37,000 while Jimmy Carter was president to the current level to which they fell during the George W. Bush presidency suggests how Washington really views the North Korean threat.
No one knows exactly when it’s going to happen, but in a few years the forwardmost U.S. combat division, the Second Infantry Division, headquartered north of Seoul on the route down which North Korean soldiers swarmed in June 1950, will be moving to a central base about 60 kilometers south of Seoul. It’s all in the grand plan for realigning U.S. troops while giving command responsibility in case of war to the South Koreans.
Looking at the exercises from the top of a ridgeline, and talking to soldiers during a break, however, you don’t get a sense of relaxation of tensions in a time of confrontation and near-crisis in the wake of the sinking in the Yellow Sea nearly one year ago of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died, or the shelling of nearby Yeonpyeong Island in November that killed four people.
“We have to maintain a ‘fight-tonight’ readiness,” said Col. Robert McAleer, coordinating training for the U.S. command. “The North Korean military is twice the size of the ROK (Republic of Korea), and 70 percent of their troops are forward-deployed.”
Sure, “We know we would prevail if attacked,” the colonel went on, citing equipment and training levels as two reasons for a show of confidence that no one wants to see tested in combat. The point of the current war games, he said, “is to make sure U.S. forces are inter-operable with the ROK military and we’re prepared to defend the ROK.”
Whether the U.S. forces left in Korea will really suffice in a showdown is far from certain. The Second Infantry division — the 2ID — has already lost two of its brigades for duty in the Middle East. That leaves it with one infantry brigade of 4,000 troops and an aviation brigade for helicopter support plus assorted ancillary units at Camp Casey, the division’s main base between Seoul and the North-South line.
Col. Ross Davidson, commanding the 2ID’s lone infantry brigade, concedes “we have forces dedicated to Iraq and Afghanistan” but says there’s a “contingency expeditionary force” waiting to fill the gap if needed. In any case he does not believe the intensity of the exercises “necessarily” means an increased threat.
“I can’t help but analyze things from a military comparative stance,” said Davidson. “All our equipment is great.” As for coordination between U.S. and South Korean forces,” he said, “the army’s got very good at this kind of stuff” after fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If the North Koreans are not about to stage a second invasion of South Korea, though, they arouse concerns in ways that all the modern forces on display here may not combat so easily.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a report published this week, said the Korean Peninsula was “now as dangerous a place as it has been at any time since the end of the Korean war in 1953?. The evidence lay in the Cheonan sinking and the artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong Island — and the fear that North Korea may well stage more provocations during “an imminent and possibly unclear leadership succession” while Kim Jong-Il prepares Kim Jong-Un, his yougest son, to take over.
South Korea’s 600,000 troops number less than half the 1.1 million in the North’s armed forces, but they’re assumed to be far better equipped and also in better physical condition. North Korean soldiers are known to have been complaining that they barely have enough to eat. The North’s special forces, more than 200,000 men, are assumed to have top priority for food rations.
South Korea’s priority when it comes to hardware is weaponry to fend off submarine attacks, such as the one that likely saw the Cheonan torpedoed, and stealth aircraft for gaining dominance over North Korea’s aging Soviet-era MiG fighters.
The North, however, has other tricks up its raveled sleeves.
Lately, the North has been jamming key government websites as well as interfering with GPS, the global positioning system, in what the South charges was “clearly in violation of the charter of the International Telecommunications Union.”
“North Korea has been violating so many rules,” said one aggrieved official, talking anonymously. “This is something new, using their electronic equipment to interfere with our communications. They have to stop using this kind of method.”
The impact on the war games, whether simulated on intricate computer systems or carried out in live-fire drills, is believed to have been negligible. South Korean officials acknowledge, however, that some important systems were compromised, slowed or briefly shut down.
Perhaps more disturbing, long run, is the North’s research on an “electromagnetic pulse bomb” that could sabotage communications over a wide swath of territory when exploded at high altitude. The stuff of Star Wars, the pulse bomb is not getting the same publicity as missiles or nuclear devices but carries grave implications for combat on the ground below.
In the real world, though, the worst danger is simply that of the unexpected incident. While the troops play war games, on the ground and in the seas on either side of the Korean peninsula, U.S. intelligence people have to admit they have no idea what’s coming next.
“North Korea has shown a proclivity for doing sometimes the unexpected,” James Clapper, the U.S. national intelligence director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. “It is the unintended consequences of those events that may precipitate something else.”
On Nightmare Range, Col. McAleer marveled at the ability of the lumbering Stryker vehicles to “deploy and employ and move very quickly” — and, thanks to some incredible high-tech gear, “to see the enemy and see themselves as they fight.”
On the other side of the bleak and barren hills, the North Koreans were presumed to be able to hear the blasts of gunfire during the war games. No one, however, seemed to know what they were doing, when or how. “They do whatever they want to do,” said Maj. John Vanhook. “They do what they do” — though what’s coming next, or how the Americans and South Koreans will respond, remains a mystery.