OpCon Transfer or OpCon Confusion: Making the Best of a Dubious Idea

As a longstanding student of military operations and a student of Korean matters as well, I would like to argue against the idea of the so-called OpCon Transfer, as now planned by Seoul and Washington for 2012.  The article is fairly brief; I will make seven specific points rather than offer a comprehensive assessment.

Let me begin by simply reminding those who may have forgotten much of the genesis in the modern America debate, at least, about why we believe in unity of command.  There are a number of case studies and a number of important military arguments, but for me, it comes down to something that happened thirty years ago this spring, which was the failure of the Iran hostage rescue effort.

Now, in one sense, perhaps this is not a perfect analogy because much of the problem with the Iran hostage rescue attempt was the lack of proper planning and training.  We had a combination of multiple services, but to some extent the metaphor, the image is army Special Forces flying Air Force helicopters out of operating off navy ships and all done without a regional command structure because this predated the 1986 Goldwater Nichols reforms.  It helped motivate those reforms in fact.  And that was part of what was ultimately seen as the problem, that we didn’t have people that were really in the business of routinely operating together and there was not a clarity about accountability or command.

Now, again, the analogy is not perfect.  But there are a number of reasons why I do think that’s an important motivating example and historical episode to bear in mind. Lives are at risk when command structures are not coherent and I think that’s just a fundamental reality that we have to remember. It is obvious, but it is worth saying.

Another point worth saying comes from recent history–1991 in Operation Desert Storm, but also other modern wars. I think that Desert Storm may be the best example of the problem of friendly fire in the modern high speed, high precision battle field environment. And that was a war, in which I believe roughly a quarter of all American fatalities were from friendly fire.  If you are not very good about understanding where each other is on the battlefield and there is not a simplicity in the structures of communication and control, you are putting your own forces at risk. Now, again, let me be careful not to overstate the point as it relates to the Opcon Transfer issue.  Even in Desert Storm we did have unity of command and we still had friendly fire problems. And the issues were largely technical; they were not always command issues. We didn’t have convincing and compelling and reliable ways of having one force signal its presence to another. That was a big part of the issue and we’ve made some progress within the U.S. military, and I am sure the Korean military as well, since that time. But again, it just goes to underscore that if there is ambiguity about, for whatever reason, who is in charge, where Air Forces are, what they are doing, what they are supposed to be doing, we could be in some trouble.

The notion that you can somehow cleanly delineate one sub-theater from another, so that Koreans could be in charge primarily of land operations and Americans of air and naval for example.  It is a bit misleading given the range and lethality and speed of modern weapons. It is not as if we are going to only use naval weapons at sea and only use air weapons in the air and use only ground weapons on the ground. It’s not the way modern combat occurs.

A third point responds to points made to me by an unnamed American friend based in the U.S. military command in Korea.  He wrote me to defend the concept of the new command. One of the points he made is that we do in fact under this new plan have some simplicity of command. We do have certain regions of the battle field that the U.S. is supposed to be in charge of and certain parts of the battle field where the ROK would be in charge.  Well, I’ve already begun to address this in my earlier comment, but it’s, I admire the efforts of the colonel and others trying to make lemonade out of lemons. And I have no doubt that we are better served by American and Korean military professionals who are trying to make this work. But it doesn’t make it a good idea. The fact that a lot of these problems are being addressed and partially solved does not make the overall genesis of the notion a good one. So, we can admire the commitment of individual military personnel in particular who are trying to make the best of this situation. It doesn’t mean, however, that just because a number of problems have been patched up that we should remain committed to it.  In the end, I think that at its core is probably not a prudent idea.

A fourth point is my response to the American officer who recently defended the Opcon Transfer plan on the grounds that, with all the preparations we are doing now, the plan will anticipate and resolve the various issues that might arise in wartime due to the complexities and discontinuities of the new command structure.  That makes Korea different from, for example, the 1980 hostage rescue incident. And because of that, even if there are some imperfections in the concept and logic of this, this officer argued that we will be Ok in the end.

Well my response to that is very simple and is the old military adage, that no plans survive contact with the enemy.  I don’t care how many people have thought about 50/27 and how many people have thought about 50/29 (and there have been a lot of great people working on both over the years), the plan is going to have to be modified in real time if and when we ever employ forces in wartime. I think that is such an obvious point that I’m not even going to burden you with further details of the argument. We can come back to it in discussion if you doubt me, but by way of motivation I will make one observation, which is, and I don’t think that we’d ever do it this badly in the U.S.-ROK alliance, but look how much trouble we have with the Iraq war plan. And to some extent, this was because of a pretty good plan that had been developed by General Zinni and others over the years was discarded by General Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld and phase four was essentially ignored.  Then things happened that we did not anticipate, and we almost “lost” the war after we had “won” it.  I don’t mean to revisit the entire Iraq war plan, but in terms of the specifics, let’s not ever pretend that we could know what war is going to look like in advance. Because no plan is going to survive contact with the enemy, we need adaptability. We are going to have to make decisions in real time.

Fifth point, some people may say, “Well all these concerns may be theoretically appropriate or valid but come on, it’s Korea in 2010.  They will say that the North Koreans are not going to be so silly as to fight and this is, therefore, not really a great concern and the only scenario that really is a concern is a North Korean collapse. So, let’s not get too hung up on these kinds of, you know, somewhat outdated military arguments. And if it’s a collapse scenario, there should be a peacekeeping mission and therefore a lot of this detailed warplanning is less crucial. 

Well, my response to that hypothetical argument is: don’t forget, even if that’s true, even if a collapse scenario becomes our number one concern, this would be collapse in a country with 8 or 10 nuclear weapons. And any resulting mission is going to have to make the securing of those 8 or 10 nuclear weapons its top priority, along with the protection of Seoul from any kind of renegade or partial or occasional firing of North Korean artillery and missiles from any individual North

Korean commanders who may decide to use this period of chaos to settle scores or to carry out actions that they have planned for in a different kind of scenario.

And so those would be the main military concerns, which means that trying to deploy special forces very quickly around North Korea, trying to target and eliminate artillery and ballistic missile launchers through a complex air and ground operation. Trying to secure North Korea’s border, not just in some general, generic sense, but with specific tactical intelligence obtained within North Korea to give us a sense of where the nuclear weapons may be headed if they are on the move.

These things are all going to be top priorities, even in a collapse scenario. And in fact they are not just top priorities, in some generic sterile sense, I’m understating the significance here. We are talking about nuclear weapons potentially on the loose. With who knows, what buyers, what destination in mind. There would not have been a more serious threat to American or Korean national security in a long time. In fact, arguably this would be a greater direct threat to the United States than the Korean War itself had been in 1950 to 1953. Because the possibility of nuclear weapons getting out there on the black market is a great threat to American cities, and obviously to Korean cities as well.

So, this is going to be a lot more than a Balkans-style peacekeeping mission or even something resembling the stabilization mission in Afghanistan’s. It’s going to be a fight for national survival for the ROK and the United States with the potential for these 8 or 10 nuclear weapons to be the most dire direct threat to our security since World War II. And, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic, I think this is factual and an accurate assessment of the kind of risks that we would be facing if indeed North Korea began to collapse. And therefore, integrated operations that involve special forces, air power, tactical intelligence and many other assets would be of crucial significance. This is not going to be just a bigger version of a peacekeeping mission, if it happens. 50/29 scenarios may seem more benign to some people than 50/27 scenarios. They don’t seem more benign to me, in terms of what is at stake.  And I think for those missions, we still have to integrate a lot of different kinds of capabilities and there is not a clear distinction between ground and air and naval operations, or between conventional and special forces, or between ROK roles and U.S. roles.

Two more points.  I think the right approach is not just to delay, but to abolish the plan of OpCon transfer.  In fact it’s not really OpCon transfer; though we use that term, in fact it’s OpCon division, it’s the creation of OpCon confusion. And with a lot of good people trying to minimize that, we’re still going from unity of command to duality of command. That’s what OpCon transfer is. So, in some sense, the term itself is oxymoronic for the reasons I’ve been trying to argue. And therefore, I think it’s a bad idea.

I think the right way to think about this is to preserve unity of command and think about the date when we can start potentially taking turns in charge.  Even today, we already have political sharing of responsibility which is the most important way for the alliance to make sure it’s equitable for the sovereign prerogatives of both sides, U.S. and ROK.  Regarding military command, I would rather wait whatever number of years is deemed appropriate before we are in the position where American forces could be under the theater wide control of an ROK commander.  Then we can perhaps alternate every two to three years.

Until that point, with apologies and with respect to Korean colleagues, until we’re at that point, I think the top military command should remain exclusively in American hands. And the reasons are that despite the fact that I would consider the ROK military to be definitely one of the ten best on the planet and may be even one of the top five, the U.S. armed forces are still somewhat better and more experienced.  The United States is still spending half a trillion of dollars a year on its core defense establishment, which means that the amount we’re spending each year, preparing that part of the force structure, which would deploy to the Korean peninsula and environs in a war, is at least 100 billion dollars a year. Because we would deploy 300,000 to 600,000 American forces depending on how you think about it, on what scenario you envision.  The equivalent peacetime cost of that much American force structure is between 100 and 200 billion dollars a year in raw numbers.

I don’t need to say this is all about money, but I’m giving you one crude metric to underscore the point that as much as the ROK military has come a long way is a very impressive organization, the United States still spends so much more and has invested so much more over the years that I think frankly, American power would be still the somewhat stronger part of the overall alliance.

This is not to say that the United States would have to retain command in all possible military scenarios even today.  At a certain point in an operation, command might be transferred to the ROK.  Consider a 50/29 scenario.  If we can address the nuclear dimension of such a scenario, the loose nuclear materials issue, we could be in a position where perhaps the United States could then transfer primary command to a Korean several weeks or months into the mission.  At that point it could become primarily an occupation and stabilization operation. So if you want to split up the command, rather than do it by ground versus air sea, or ROK versus U.S., may be the better way to think of it is as a 50/29 scenario evolves, the United States should look for an opportunity, once the initial nuclear materials have been secured and the missile threat and the artillery threat have been dealt with, to then pass on primary overall command to Korea.  Thereafter, the American forces would be under that Korean command in their entirety.  So I could envision that, but until that day I believe that the current command arrangement is smarter.

And a very last point, just to – this is my seventh – just to remind you that the United States can and will do such things.  We can put our forces under foreign command.  Historically we’ve had a number of examples of Americans serving under foreign military command.  In Afghanistan in the ISAF operation, today  General McChrystal is obviously in charge.  But in earlier periods, we’ve had American troops under European command.  We can always make these fine distinctions between about how they were under a tactical American command, but the overall command in the theater for much of the mission was European and there were Americans under that command.  I think Americans could do that again in Korea and the question is simply when, when and under what overall concept. As argued above, I do think there are ways in which Americans could someday operate under ROK command.  But I do not believe in subdividing the job of command and control in the short term; it is ultimately likely to weaken the alliance. Perhaps the alliance is strong enough to endure this injury, but why take the risk?