Don’t Rush the U.S.-Korea Command Change

As a new American commanding officer, General Curtis Scaparrotti, prepares to take charge of combined South Korean and American forces on the Korean peninsula, pressure is mounting on the general to ensure that South Korea takes charge of most elements of alliance command responsibilities by 2015.  That date, already a delay from the original plan developed in the Bush administration to transfer command by 2012, seems overdue to some on Capitol Hill, where clamors for more allied burdensharing in a time of American austerity are obviously mounting. 

But ensuring fair burdensharing is not the principal prism through which this issue should be viewed.  In fact, South Korea spends 2.5 percent of its healthy GDP on defense, in contrast to a NATO average of less than 2 percent and an average among America’s other Asia-Pacific allies closer to 1.5 percent.  It would provide the preponderance of allied ground troops in any future war, especially in the early, difficult months of such a conflict—just as it should.  There is room for ongoing improvement, to be sure.  But in Korea, our preeminent concerns need to be unity of command and effectiveness of our combined deterrent against a still very potent North Korean threat. 

It is worth remembering how the plan for “opcon transfer” originated.  It was based less on a military argument among specialists that the time had come to give a Korean general primary command authorities, and more on the political state of the alliance a decade ago.  Back then, the South Korean leader, President Noh, playing the nationalism card, and ambivalent about the future of the alliance, found a willing accomplice for the transfer plan in U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted a more expeditionary American global footprint and felt that U.S. forces in Korea were too anchored to the peninsula.  These two leaders drove a process that many experts believed to be rushed and dubious from the start.  In addition to its questionable original motivations, the plan would also produce a mixed command arrangement, with South Korean and American forces sharing authorities rather than transferring them. 

Indeed, the Korean opcon transfer plan flies in the face of much modern-day American military reform thinking, which has stressed unity and simplicity of command as a general precept.  Dating back to the tragic failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980, the United States has concluded that any ambiguity in who runs a military operation is bad for the prospects of a mission.  In that failed raid, Special Forces flew Air Force helicopters operating off Navy ships, all done without a regional command structure or an overarching Special Operations command structure because the raid predated the 1986 Goldwater Nichols reforms that dramatically improved the way such operations would be run in the future. 

Take another lesson from recent history, the 1991 war against Iraq, Operation Desert Storm.  It provided a clear example of the problem of friendly fire in the modern high speed, high precision battle field environment.  In that war, roughly a quarter of all American fatalities were from friendly fire.  This was not strictly speaking a failure of unified command, since such a command did exist in the U.S.-led coalition then, but it illustrated the risk that long-range, high-speed, and high-accuracy weaponry can pose when not extremely well coordinated.

Command structures that are bifurcated or otherwise ambiguous in certain ways can raise the risk of such tragedies in the future. 

Today’s command arrangements are a remarkable testament to allied effort over the decades.  Although the top general is always American, Koreans and Americans report to each other at various echelons throughout the entire Command Forces Command arrangement.  And most of all, the commanding general reports equally to both presidents.  The Blue House, where the South Korean president lives, and the White House would be expected to coordinate closely and equally—and only then give commands to a military officer who would carry out their joint wishes and those of their political systems more broadly. 

Indeed, there is a case that opcon transfer is simply a bad idea, period.

The current arrangement is well oiled, well honed, and  effective.  If it is to be changed, that should happen carefully and as slowly as military leaders on both sides think prudent.  We have something quite good already.  Let’s not break it to keep to an artificial schedule that was never particularly compelling or necessary.