U.S. troops in Korea participate in a joint military exercise between the two countries. (Yonhap)
The U.S.’ plan to slash its number of Army troops is raising concerns over its ability to send ground forces in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.
The troop reduction from 520,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 in the coming years from the current 520,000 reaffirms that Washington is unlikely to commit massive forces for contingencies here as stated in the allies’ joint war plan, analysts said.
On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the plan to curtail the number of active-duty Army soldiers to the lowest level since 1940, while outlining the defense budget proposal for the fiscal year 2015.
The troop drawdown is part of Washington’s efforts to address its fiscal woes and realign or “normalize” its troop structure after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Experts say that given the shift in the troop level, Seoul and Washington should draw up a more “realistic” war plan to deal with North Korea-related contingencies including a regime collapse and an all-out war.
“Now, the idea of the U.S. sending massive ground troops for peninsular contingencies is no longer viable. Excluding that option, the allies should put their heads together to contrive a way to best deal with contingency scenarios,” said Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University.
Currently, Washington is deploying its troops around the world increasingly on a rotational basis to make them more adaptive to new threat environments and rapidly deployable to crisis situations.
It has also shifted its operational focus to naval and air aspects for rapid, precision-guided strikes to maintain maritime superiority and reduce troop fatalities, which have fanned antiwar sentiment in the U.S. over the course of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The overall military trend suggests that Washington may refrain from engaging in costly, bloody ground battles should hostilities occur on the peninsula as witnessed in the Syria case, analysts pointed out.
“The U.S. appears to prefer a ‘clean war’ by using its naval and air forces. It may seek to encourage its allies to commit ground troops if need be,” said Park of Handong Global University.
In the beginning stage of a war, naval and air forces would play a critical role to quickly defeat an adversary. But afterwards ground troops are of critical importance for stabilization operations. For this reason, experts say that the U.S. troop reduction calls on South Korea to strengthen its ground troops.
“Should there be hostilities between the two Koreas and conditions become similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, South Korean troops may have to take the whole responsibility for the stabilization operations in the North, given the U.S. might be reluctant to do that job at the risk of their troops’ lives again,” said Kwon Tae-young, adviser to the nonprofit Korea Research Institute for Strategy.
But the downsizing of the ground forces and budget cuts would not undercut the U.S. security commitment to the defense of South Korea as it also serves Washington’s own interests, Kwon noted.
“As Washington pledged to effectively offer the extended deterrence to South Korea, it would continue to ensure peninsular security, as any failure to do so would weaken the support from its allies around the world, hurt its global leadership and cause South Korea, Japan and other states to pursue nuclear armament for their own defense,” he said.
Extended deterrence means Washington’s commitment to protecting its ally with its nuclear and conventional assets against threats from nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.
Kwon added that the U.S. would maintain its military primacy in the region despite financial woes with the development of high-tech conventional weapons systems including precision-guided bombs and the evolving missile defense system.
“Despite the reduction of ground forces, the U.S. appears to believe that it could handle the threats it faces with the development of cutting-edge military technologies that reduce the reliance on ground forces and increase combat capabilities,” said Kwon.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)