Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

Like behemoths rising from the deep, the amphibians burst forth from beneath the waves, water splashing in all directions. The ‘creatures’ smoothly completed the transition from ocean to land as water cascaded from their backs. The amphibians drew to a sudden stop on the sandy beach as they sensed their surroundings. Shortly, their rear ramps opened and the vehicles started disgorging marines, who immediately began to push inland. Overhead, helicopters buzzed and flitted…

Exercise Foal Eagle
This was an amphibious assault conducted by about 1,500 members of the US Marine Corps (USMC) and 2,000 personnel of the Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC) on 26 April 2013. It was the culminating event of Exercise Foal Eagle, a two-month-long bilateral exercise between the USA and its South Korean ally. The landing occurred north of Pohang on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. It involved AAV7A1 vehicles from the USA and South Korea, as well as K1 main battle tanks, naval vessels, landing ships, hovercraft, helicopters and aircraft. Three MV-22B Ospreys of the USMC made a cameo appearance. The event also formed a major component of Exercise Ssangyong – which was the USMC component of Foal Eagle.

The participating USMC battalion from the 3rd Marine Division deployed from Okinawa, where it is rotationally deployed for six months from its home base in Hawaii. The Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) were from III Marine Expeditionary Force’s (III MEF) Combat Assault Battalion (CAB), a unique Okinawa-based formation that features both AAVs and LAVs. The ROKMC force comprised mainly the 3rd Regiment of the 1st Division based in the Pohang region.

Of note, this was the solitary ‘kinetic’ event of Foal Eagle that media were allowed to attend before the exercise concluded on 30 April. This marked a sharp difference in policy to previous Foal Eagles, and officials revealed to that it was due to efforts to keep this year’s exercise as low-key as possible.

Soaring tensions
US spokesmen stressed this particular landing and all Foal Eagle events were “defensive in nature”. However, North Korea’s press agency denounced the drill’s “aggressive nature” and accused the USA of driving “tension on the peninsula into an extreme phase, creating such danger that a nuclear war may break out any moment.” This year, tensions in Korea have risen to new heights due to a confluence of events. The North launched a three-stage missile on 12 December and conducted a third nuclear-weapon test on 12 February 2013. It repudiated the 1953 Armistice Agreement and stopped answering the DMZ hotline. The regime has also been touting its ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads. In typical fiery rhetoric, North Korea threatened to turn both Seoul and Washington D.C. into a “sea of fire”, and to launch attacks on US bases in Guam and Japan.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has never been short of bluster, but this year the young and unblooded leader Kim Jong-un has seemed determined to underscore his credentials as a military commander. Indeed, he has successfully veered the two Koreas towards unprecedented levels of tension since the Armistice was signed in 1953. With the US military suffering as sequestration begins to bite, the novice Kim obviously thought it a good time to test American resolve. The USA did not back down, deploying B-52s, bombers capable of dropping nuclear weapons, and a nuclear attack submarine. It also promised to beef up anti-missile defenses in South Korea, Japan and Alaska. Furthermore, South Korea has its first female president so there was certainly an element of testing her mettle too.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sought to assuage South Korean fears, saying his country would continue to offer “the extended deterrence offered by the US nuclear umbrella, and we will ensure that all of its capabilities remain available to the alliance.” While the threat of a nuclear strike is not totally off the cards, it would be quite suicidal for Kim and his regime to resort to this option. Instead, more likely is a border skirmish or small-scale provocation. However, that would risk miscalculation or escalation of an already dry powder keg. In a long-running game of brinkmanship, Pyongyang has proven adept at ratcheting up tensions, and on this occasion it has certainly succeeded in doing so again.

The latest intelligence reports, announced by the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University, suggest the DPRK will begin operating a light-water reactor within weeks. This will ostensibly provide electrical power to the poverty-wracked nation, but more frighteningly, it could be a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In recent days, tensions have eased slightly. It had been reported the DPRK was preparing to launch Musudan medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) from sites near Wonsan on the east coast, but South Korean officials were saying on 29 April that this threat had passed. The US Navy’s missile range instrumentation ship USNS Observation Island (T-AGM-23) returned to Sasebo Naval Base in Japan on 26 April, again emphasizing a reduction in tensions. Fitted with the AN/SPQ-11 Cobra Judy passive array, this tracking radar collects data on foreign ballistic missile tests.

OPCON transfer
In light of current tensions, the former United States Forces Korea (USFK) commander, General B.B. Bell (retired), said in a letter published by South Korean media that the stakes were too high for South Korea to take over full operational control (OPCON) on the peninsula as scheduled to occur in 2015. He stated, “I feel deeply that the South Korean military is vastly superior to that of the North. However, once armed with nuclear weapons, the North will possess a capability that will put the South at a significant disadvantage on any future battlefield, or in any future negotiations…As long as the North remains nuclear weapons-capable, America should lead our combined military forces.”

There has been considerable debate over whether South Korea is ready to take over wartime OPCON. In response to Bell’s letter, the USFK said, “We will continue to work through planning the transfer to a ROK-led combined defense and remain on track and committed to the Strategic Alliance 2015 milestones.” The transfer of wartime OPCON was originally supposed to occur in 2012 but it was delayed after North Korea torpedoed and sank a ROK Navy corvette in March 2010, killing 46 sailors. In November that year, the DPRK shelled Yeonpyeoong Island in an unprovoked artillery barrage. In response, the USA and South Korea began formulating a Counter-Provocation Plan, which was signed into existence on 22 March this year. Neither side is revealing its content, but the USFK commented, “The completed plan includes procedures for consultation and action to allow for a strong and decisive combined ROK-US response to North Korean provocations threats.”

In March, the fortnight-long Key Resolve command post exercise was the first to be led by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the US-led Combined Forces Command (CFC). It amounted to a dry run for this planned transfer to South Korea.




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