The commander of U.S. Forces Korea is working to ensure all the capabilities needed to defend South Korea are in place.
Army Gen. James D. Thurman told the Association of the Republic of Korea Army June 12 that the U.S. Army has issued guidance to increase the manning levels of the 2nd Infantry Division. He is also working with U.S. service chiefs to keep American might on the peninsula at the highest levels of readiness.
This does not necessarily mean an increase in the number of troops in South Korea, Thurman said. There are about 28,500 Americans based in the country. That number will remain about the same, but the distribution will be changed, he said.
“There is true commitment from the United States and common understanding of the importance that northeast Asia has today,” Thurman said.
The general also is looking for ways to reduce the high U.S. military turnover rate in South Korea. Most U.S. forces deploy to the country for one-year tours. “There’s a constant turnover and loss of people coming and going to Korea,” he said. “I have asked the Army and the other services to help develop options to mitigate this, and I’m confident we will be able to work this.”
Thurman said he is also examining the current U.S. force structure on the peninsula and what modifications must be made to enhance warfighting capabilities.
At his regular Tuesday news conference, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Thurman is dedicated to ensuring “that we and our South Korean allies have the capabilities that we need to ensure the defense of the Republic of Korea.”
“Any recommendations or decisions that he has made with respect to the provision of new equipment, we believe, is part of a calculus that goes on all the time when you’re in a theater like the Republic of Korea and you face a threat across the border,” Little added.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby stressed that nothing Thurman is requesting is new.
“These are … long-standing capabilities that he’s been interested in making sure he has available to him,” Kirby said at the same Pentagon news conference. “In fact, some of them, I think, are intended just to replace or restore assets that deployed to Afghanistan from South Korea that he just simply wants … to get back into his quiver.”
Deterring North Korea is the mission of U.S. forces in South Korea, officials said. North Korea has just gone through regime succession. The North sank the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan in 2010. Later that year, the North shelled a border island killing two civilians and two South Korean Marines. The North also unsuccessfully tried to launch a missile in April that could be used as an ICBM. All these incidents, officials said, point to the threat Pyongyang poses.
“Our readiness defines our deterrent capability and we can never allow that to slip,” Thurman said. “Maintaining high levels of readiness requires having the proper manning, the proper force structure and the most modern equipment.”
Thurman has asked U.S. Army leaders for priority to receive an added attack-reconnaissance helicopter squadron to bring the 2ndInfantry Division’s combat aviation brigade to full strength.
The general said he’s also requested “increased capabilities in terms of theater ballistic missile defense.”
The 2nd Infantry Division already has the Army’s most modern tanks, improved capabilities in the Bradley fighting vehicles and upgraded Blackhawk helicopters, Thurman said.
“We will continue to improve our joint command, control, computers, and intelligence systems, and we will continue to improve our cyber capabilities,” he said. “This is a domain that we must be prepared to operate in from a combined and joint perspective because this is important to mitigate the risks posed by our potential enemies.”
Enhancing interoperability with the South Korean military is a priority for U.S. Forces Korea, Thurman said.
“The ROK-U.S. alliance is the strongest alliance in the world,” the general said. “It is the best military-to-military relationship I have ever experienced in my 37 years serving in the United States military. And it’s the best because it is built on mutual trust and common values.”