U.S. forces and allies stationed along the Korean peninsula have suffered a “slight degradation in readiness” following the cancellation of a major joint exercise in August, the nominee for the post of U.S. Forces Korea commander said Tuesday.
“There was certainly degradation to the readiness of … the combined forces” as a result of the suspended exercise, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commanding general of U.S. Army Command Forces, said during his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
The exercise, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, was suspended by the White House this past June after President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Despite his declaration that the cancellation led to degradation of readiness, Abrams noted that the move is an example of “prudent risk” on the part of the Trump administration to help open up opportunities for diplomatic agreements, Abrams said.
“If we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], something has to adjust, in my view, to be able to start to build trust and confidence as we move forward in the relationship,” he added.
The exercises currently scheduled for spring 2019 — Key Resolve and Foal Eagle — continue to be planned for, Abrams said, noting that the actual execution “is a future decision to be made by alliance leaders.”
He added that he has “great confidence” that current U.S. Forces Korea Commander Army Gen. Vincent Brooks has instituted a mitigation plan that will help sustain the force readiness “until the next series of exercises are planned.” The plan includes participation at smaller staff-level exercises “that would not be of the same scale, scope and volume in the information domain as say, Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” he noted.
Multiple senators, particularly Democrats including Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), pressed Abrams on the possible impact of delayed or canceled exercises on the Korean peninsula. Sen. David Peters (D-Mich.), asked Abrams “how long and how many exercises do you have to miss” before allied forces see a significant degradation in readiness. Abrams answered that that assessment would be one of his top priorities if confirmed.
“I know from my 36-plus years of service about what the shelf life is of readiness of our forces to be able to conduct certain activities, but I need to apply that judgment based on what I assess when I get on the ground,” he added.
The U.S. military is prepared and has the proper capabilities to address future potential chemical and biological attacks by North Korea on the peninsula, Abrams said.
“We’ve been on a full court press on this for the last three years, and I’m happy to report that our readiness and our preparedness for operating in that environment is much higher,” he said.
Abrams noted that the atmosphere is that of a “temporary pause and détente on the peninsula,” and that it had been 300 days since the last provocation from North Korea. He added that military-to-military communications between the United Nations Command and the DPRK at a senior officer level have resumed for the first time in 11 years.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Abrams for the potential ramifications of removing all U.S. military personnel from the Korean peninsula in the event of a new deal between Trump and Kim. The Trump administration has objected to a provision included in the FY ’19 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that restricts the White House from decreasing troop levels in South Korea below 22,000, according to reports.
Sullivan said the White House had a “blind spot” on the matter and noted that legislators believed it would be “strategically disastrous” and would not authorize a decrease in troop levels, but pressed Abrams for his personal opinion.
Abrams noted that the question referred to a hypothetical situation, but acknowledged that “Tactically, without any mention of any change in his conventional capability, … there would be a significant amount of risk.”
He added that Russia and China would be “strongly encouraged” by a decrease in troop levels.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters on Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has “a delicate line to walk here” in coordinating negotiations with the North Korean government, and added, “One could at least make the argument that sustaining a little bit of degradation in readiness in the overall goal of helping to maintain sanctions in the court of international public opinion was a tradeoff worth making.”
That being said, training and exercises are vital to the U.S. military’s ability to maintain and improve its readiness, particularly as it shifts from a primary focus on counterterrorism missions to a high-end conflict with near-peer competitors, he noted.
“For 17 years, we’ve been focused on one kind of conflict and we have not paid as much attention as we should to another kind. So we’re doing more training, more rotations to help make up for that gap,” he said.