“FIGHT TONIGHT” – US ARMY 2nd INFANTRY DIVISION IN SOUTH KOREA
Byline: Gordon Arthur / South Korea
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) underwent a very undemocratic transition of power on 17 December 2011 when Kim Jong-un replaced his father on the communist throne. Kim, estimated to be just 29 years old, is the third dynastic ruler over the poverty-stricken totalitarian state. It is too early to speculate whether he will be a progressive or retrograde ruler compared to his father, but already he has overseen an attempted “satellite” rocket launch, reshaped the leadership’s inner circle (in particular he removed top military leader, Ri Yong-ho) and instituted economic reforms. In an address to the Association of the United States Army on 22 October 2012, General James Thurman, the top US commander on the Korean Peninsular, assessed that, “He is an unpredictable ruler who leads a regime unwilling to operate as part of the global community. His actions have increased uncertainty on the peninsula and in the greater Northeast Asia region.”
In October, Defence Review Asia travelled to South Korea specifically to visit the 2nd “Indianhead” Infantry Division (2ID) of the US Army. This division has a long-standing connection with Korea, having fought in the Korean War and being stationed on the peninsular for the majority of the 59 intervening years since the Armistice Agreement was signed on 27 July 1953.
Major General Edward Cardon took up command of 2ID on 20 September 2011, and the author interviewed him in his underground command bunker at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, a town north of Seoul. MG Cardon described the division’s unique position in the US Army: “What’s interesting about this division is that it’s the last forward-stationed division in the army.” Arrayed against it is the third-largest standing army in the world. North Korea boasts an estimated 1.1 million soldiers, 13,000 artillery systems, 4,000 tanks, 2,000 armoured personnel carriers (APC), 1,700 aircraft and 800 surface ships. The bulk of DPRK troops – some 70% – are deployed within 145km of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The 4km-wide DMZ slices nearly 250km across the peninsular, reflecting stalemated positions held by belligerents when the Korean War ended. The DMZ buffer zone is the world’s most heavily defended border, punctuated by security fences, minefields, watchtowers and anti-tank walls. Furthermore, it passes only 42km north of Seoul, putting the capital well within DPRK artillery range.
2nd Infantry Division
2ID is benefitting from the USA’s “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, not necessarily in troop numbers but certainly in terms of equipment and prioritisation. United States Force Korea (USFK) maintains 28,500 troops in Korea, of which nearly 10,000 are soldiers belonging to 2ID. MG Cardon controls three brigades: the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team (1st ABCT), 210th Fires Brigade (210th FiB) and 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade (2nd CAB).
The 1st ABCT contains two identically organised mechanised battalions (2-9 IN, 1-72 AR), a cavalry squadron (4-7 CAV) and an M109A6 battalion (1-15 FA). Meanwhile, the 210th FiB comprises two M270A1 MLRS battalions (1-38 FA, 6-37 FA). The division relies on technology rather than numbers to give it an advantage over outdated North Korean equipment. Perhaps the most noticeable change within the division in the author’s eyes is the new preponderance of up-armoured tactical vehicles. Combat units are now predominantly equipped with armoured HMMWV, FMTV and HEMTT vehicles. “When I got here there wasn’t a single up-armoured vehicle. We’re tapping a lot of the lessons and equipment that have been developed in war zones, and they’re now finding their way to the 2nd Infantry Division. That’s a great thing as it’s improving capability,” MG Cardon told Defence Review Asia.
Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles are another new item coming to South Korea, with some 78 examples recently arriving in-country for proof-of-principle assessments. “The question is what types we want, so we’re going to be doing some tests to determine what will be the best fit for the terrain,” commented the commander.
Heavy combat equipment was inducted in 2011. “We’ve got all-new tanks [M1A2 SEP Abrams], all-new Bradleys [M2A3/M3A3] and we have the latest Apache helicopters,” said MG Cardon. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Adams, for one, is appreciative of the new equipment. As commander of 4-7 CAV, he was once lumbered with what he described as the “oldest” M3A2 Bradleys in the US Army. Now his squadron is operating the latest M3A3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles (CFV) fitted with Urban Survivability Kits, and these have enormously improved weapon, sight and mechanical performances. He also has the very latest A3 BFIST (Bradley Fire Support Team) vehicles fitted with the Fire Support Sensor System (FS3). The 2nd CAB has also fully transitioned to up-to-date UH-60L Black Hawks.
The lynchpin of American war plans is the rapid augmentation of troops from the continental USA (CONUS). “If anything happened here, we’d be reinforced as a division and we’d expand,” explained the commanding general. Units such as Stryker brigades in Washington State and Hawaii, among others, are earmarked to deploy to the peninsular to reinforce forward-deployed troops. Indeed, this important Reception, Staging, Onward movement and Integration (RSOI) procedure is practised annually in a major training exercise. Large amounts of prepositioned materiel are kept in the south of the peninsular (for example, at Camp Carroll), and each year these are brought out for the RSOI exercise. This year, elements from two different Stryker brigades exercised in South Korea, including 1-27 IN from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, which spent some 40 days there.
A unique challenge for 2ID, as explained by LTC Jay Gardner, the commander of 6-37 FA, is the difficulty in resetting combat units when new equipment arrives. For a CONUS unit, inducting new equipment can be done more easily. However, it is more challenging for a forward-deployed unit as it cannot stand down while it resets. For a formation such as 2ID, the mission of deterring North Korea remains uppermost and no capability degradation can be allowed to occur whilst new equipment is introduced.
An important consideration for planners is ensuring that appropriate forces are stationed in South Korea. MG Cardon commented on the important and recent decision to transfer the 23rd Chemical Battalion from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the state of Washington. Advance units will start arriving in South Korea in November 2012, and the transfer will conclude next year. This chemical battalion will absorb command of the 4th Chemical Company that is currently the only American unit of its type on the peninsular. “Certainly North Korea has weapons of mass destruction [WMD] of all types, but a lot of times the posturing of forces has to deal with how long it takes to get certain capabilities. Certain things have to be forward-positioned because of how long they take to get here.” It is clear from this unit transfer that USFK considers a WMD attack as a serious possibility in the event of conflict.
Another capability gap in 2ID is the lack of an aviation reconnaissance squadron due to the withdrawal of two Apache squadrons in the last decade because of urgent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most recent case was the inactivation of 3-6 CAV in 2006. This left just one AH-64D Apache Longbow-equipped unit in Korea – 4-2 ATK. “There’s a lot of discussion about what’s the exact type of battalion that should come back, but I’m confident this will be resolved at the higher levels,” assured MG Cardon.
The “Warrior Division” (i.e. 2ID) possesses integral unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities – 4-7 CAV operates RQ-11 Ravens while the 2nd CAB fields RQ-7 Shadows. Of course, the division can also turn to US Air Force (USAF) and theatre-level reconnaissance assets for further support. In addition to modern equipment, USFK is also improving manning to 100% levels. LTC Adams confirmed improvements in this area, stating his squadron had higher manning levels now than ever before. One important disruptive influence remains in the rapid turnover of troops, since soldiers typically complete just one-year tours of duty on the peninsular.
The US Army’s premier training facility is Rodriguez Range near the DMZ, which MG Cardon adjudged among the US Army’s top three digital-instrumented ranges anywhere. Concrete hardstands have replaced mud, and helicopter landing pads and new range instrumentation are all much in evidence. ‘Rod Range’, as it is colloquially known, also has an HMMWV Egress Assistance Trainer (HEAT) and newly installed MRAP Egress Trainer (MET) that allow crewmen to practise escaping from vehicles after a rollover.
Another important tool is live, virtual, constructive training (LVCT). “For a commander, his unit may be live in a training area or virtual in a combat training centre, or they may be simulated on his command-and-control screen, but to him it looks the same,” the division commander shared. “It has huge potential because it allows you to train at much higher levels that you’d normally train at here in Korea. It’s an amazing capability and we’ve been forced into this because training areas are being encroached on.” South Korea certainly provides unique challenges, particularly when it comes to artillery live-firing because of the close proximity of residents to impact areas. It is not uncommon to see US and ROK artillery units parked alongside main roads to conduct firing. The close military and civilian rubbing of shoulders also requires particularly stringent safety checks before firing commences.
While 2ID is well equipped, significantly more so now compared to just a year or two ago, the commander pragmatically recognises new equipment alone will not turn the tide in any North Korean onslaught. “Don’t get me wrong – I want the latest equipment but my point is that new equipment doesn’t have a direct correlation to combat capability. You need to put this altogether in a coherent fighting force organising itself over time and space.” This explains why the division is now placing a heavy emphasis on combined training with its South Korean host.
This urgency in bilateral training is long overdue. When the author visited 2ID in the past, there was little, if any, combined training with the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army. There was close cooperation at the top end of the command level within the Combined Forces Command (CFC), but it rarely happened at the echelon level. MG Cardon explained the change: “It’s an outgrowth from wars where we’ve had to work with partners, and it’s certainly been a priority here. Every training exercise we try to work with our ROK partners.”
Such training is certainly of benefit to both parties, and it would hugely assist cooperation in any combat situation. During the author’s visit, 4-7 CAV was performing combined training with a tank company from the ROK Army’s 20th Mechanised Infantry Division, an assigned sister unit. LTC Adams concurred that there is “increased trust and confidence” between the two allies. Lieutenant Colonel Kim, the commander of the aforementioned division’s 26th Tank Battalion, said, “We haven’t worked much with the Americans before. So, now, if we went to war, we’d feel a lot more confident working together.”
2nd Lieutenant Kim of the same South Korean battalion told the author, “We’re very satisfied with more training. We’re doing it more than before.” This soldier with ten years’ service behind him said the new emphasis was “a good thing”. 2LT Kim also pointed out that, while there is still a technological gap between the US and ROK Armies, it was narrower than before owing to a lot of high-tech equipment entering Korean service. MG Cardon is cognisant that his division is just one of 30+ divisions in the ROK Army order of battle. “I’m an infantry-poor division; the ROKs have lots of infantry. If you can put their infantry together with our advanced systems…that’s a powerful force.” This statement illustrates the type of synergy that truly combined operations can produce.
A unique feature of 2ID is that it is partially made up of South Korean troops. The Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) programme was instituted just after the Korean War broke out, and it enabled South Korean personnel to support American forces and round out their units. The programme has continued and today approximately 1,100 KATUSAs serve in 2ID. This figure equates to 10% of the division’s manpower. South Korean males must perform national service, and some do so as KATUSA candidates. A KATUSA performs the full length of his national service as a completely integrated member of the US Army. This means he wears a US Army uniform and is trained within US units. It is of benefit in improving interoperability, and allowing American troops insights into Korean culture. Their bilingual language skills are also indispensable, especially when it comes to combined training.
South Korean military progress
South Korea has the 13th largest economy in the world, and brands like Hyundai and Samsung are household names. The country’s military industry has developed greatly too, and the majority of army equipment is manufactured domestically. Examples include K1A1 and K2 main battle tanks, K21 infantry fighting vehicles, K9 self-propelled howitzers and the imminent Surion helicopter. Certainly the ROK Army possesses a qualitative edge over the DPRK. MG Cardon spoke highly of ROK military capabilities, describing his partners as “very professional and very capable” in their essentially defence-oriented posture.
The ROK Army possesses 520,000 active-duty personnel, but this figure will drop to 387,200 by 2020 under restructuring plans. Today, the army remains dependent upon conscription for manpower. For decades the ROK Army has been a largely static force reliant on the USA, but it is now moving towards more flexible, combined-arms brigades. At the army’s heart are three field armies, of which the Third ROK Army (TROKA) is the most important and largest since it defends the vulnerable western end of the DMZ. As part of restructuring, TROKA will merge with the First ROKA. In fact, 16 infantry divisions are to disappear and eleven new brigades similar to Stryker units will be created to form a leaner army able to conduct rapid counteroffensives. The country already has ballistic-missile defence (BMD) capabilities in the form of Patriot batteries and Aegis-equipped destroyers.
The transfer of operational control (OPCON) was originally scheduled for 17 April 2012 but the handover was postponed until 1 December 2015 after the sinking of ROKS Cheonan in March 2010. GEN Thurman assured that, “The [ROK] Joint Chiefs of Staff are on track to assume responsibility for the wartime defence of Korea in December 2015.” LTC Adams assessed that the ROK Army is “in position with the right amount of force to defend the peninsular”.
It was reported on 7 October that South Korea and the USA had agreed to allow the former to double the range of its missiles to 800km. This surpasses the current level of 300km and 500kg payload that was agreed in 2001 when South Korea joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). “The biggest purpose of the revision is curbing military provocations by North Korea,” said ROK national security advisor Chun Yung-Woo. South Korea accepts the presence of 28,500 troops in Korea and a guaranteed nuclear “umbrella” in the event of a DPRK atomic attack. In return, Seoul accepted limitations on its missile capabilities. However, the South has long argued the range limit should be extended; negotiations became more urgent, especially after a failed DPRK rocket launch in April. Chun said the new deal was aimed at “securing a more comprehensive response to missile threats.” This new deal will put all of North Korea, as well as parts of China and Japan, within South Korean missile range.
Approximately 75% of the Korean Peninsular is extremely hilly, with a major mountain spine running its entire length. In the Korean War this seriously influenced combat operations since the valleys and lowlands in the west provided the best invasion corridors. In fact there are three primary corridors that lead towards Seoul, and it was along these that the main DPRK effort went during the Korean War. Historically, 2ID has been positioned north of Seoul to defend these likely invasion routes, and that is where it still is today, even though it does not occupy the frontline positions it once did. In fact, of any potential conflict in the world today, the peninsular is one of the most likely to see major tank-versus-tank warfare. When other US Army units were focussing on counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, 2ID remained single-mindedly attuned to conventional mechanised warfare.
However, 2ID units and bases will gradually realign southwards to new hubs well south of Seoul, with the principal one for the army being in the locality of Pyeongtaek. This is where Camp Humphreys is situated and major construction is currently under way to enlarge facilities there. However, MG Cardon declined to comment on progress or any timetable for the proposed move.
The Eighth United States Army (EUSA) is the parent organisation of 2ID, and it transformed into a field army HQ on 23 January 2012. This involved army service component command responsibilities once held in Korea being transferred to the US Army Pacific (USARPAC). This frees up EUSA for operational roles such as commanding multiple US and multinational corps in a war scenario, plus setting up a combined joint task force that can contribute to operations and contingency plans. However, this change does not impact the division in any significant way. MG Cardon did say: “As we’re going through our reorganisation inside the US Army, every headquarters has to be more capable than it is now. Now the EUSA has become a much more capable command-and-control organ.”
North Korea’s asymmetric capabilities are perhaps the most worrying to planners. GEN Thurman warned: “North Korea possesses the world’s largest special operations force of over 60,000. They possess a significant amount of WMDs. They are investing heavily in developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. North Korea continues to invest in ballistic-missile improvements to include developing missiles which can threaten the region. Finally, the North Koreans possess a significant cyber-warfare capability, which they continue to improve.”
MG Cardon concluded the interview with Defence Review Asia by emphasising his division’s readiness to resist North Korean aggression: “You can’t control what’s going to happen…But what I can do is control our ability to generate options for the commander and always be ready. That’s what I spend a lot of my time working on, so that it’s ready when called upon.” This division and its South Korean counterparts stand ready to “Fight Tonight”, as 2ID’s motto proclaims.