Washington and Seoul are poised to resume large-scale combined military exercises for the first time in four years.
Doing so will repair the degradation to allied deterrence and defense capabilities wrought by years of canceled or reduced military training.
While the U.S. and South Korea constrained their militaries, North Korea continued its own military exercises, as well as developed and deployed numerous new missiles systems.
In 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally announced the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea. The United States received nothing in return for its unilateral concession: Pyongyang neither codified its missile and nuclear test moratorium in the Singapore communique, nor announced reciprocal constraints on its own military exercises.
Within the first eight months of Trump’s decision, the U.S. and South Korea had canceled at least nine major exercises. Gen. Robert Abrams, then-commander of U.S. Forces Korea, testified in 2019 that he had reduced the “size, scope, volume, and timing” of allied military exercises in South Korea without any change in North Korean military activity. Pyongyang’s annual winter training cycle that year involved some 1 million troops.
Then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in resisted Biden administration requests to resume pre-2018 levels of bilateral training exercises due to concerns that doing so would undermine his conciliatory approach to North Korea.
The Moon administration advocated unconditional economic benefits, reduced sanctions enforcement, and continued reduction of allied military activity to induce Pyongyang back to denuclearization negotiations.
The outbreak of COVID-19 also restricted the resumption of exercises.
The inauguration of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in May brought South Korea into alignment with the United States on restoring allied military readiness.
During their May meeting, Yoon and President Joe Biden agreed to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises, as well as the rotational deployment of U.S. strategic assets—bombers, aircraft carriers, and dual-capable aircraft—to the Korean Peninsula. The latter had also been curtailed in 2018. The resumption of strategic asset deployments may be held in abeyance until North Korea conducts an expected seventh nuclear test.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries will resume large-scale field exercises with the commencement of Ulchi Freedom Shield (formerly Ulchi Freedom Guardian) on Monday.
The combined exercises will include U.S. and South Korean air, naval, and ground forces. The exercises will include scenarios such as defending and counterattacking a full-scale North Korean invasion, as well as terrorism at airports and nuclear power plants, a fire at a semiconductor plant, and cyberattacks paralyzing financial networks.
Beyond Ulchi Freedom Shield, an additional 11 field exercises between U.S. and South Korean troops are scheduled in the coming months. Since Yoon’s inauguration in May, the U.S. and South Korea have ramped up military training.
In July, the U.S. and South Korean militaries conducted an 11-day exercise at the Korea Combat Training Center. The training involved 4,300 South Korean troops, 300 U.S. troops, and 100 vehicles, including tanks, armored vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, attack helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Also in July, U.S. forces conducted their first live-fire drill with AH-64E Apache attack helicopters in three years. The South Korean army also conducted a large-scale live-fire drill with ground troops and 30 helicopters.
U.S. Marines and their South Korean counterparts conducted a combined drill practicing replenishing military supplies at front-line units. The exercise involved transport planes, helicopters, and ground forces.
The training was part of the bilateral Korea Marine Exercise Program, which had continued during the past four years, but with approximately half the annual number of exercises. The exercises were not publicly announced during the Moon administration, but the July exercise was publicized.
The unilateral concession of reducing combined U.S. and South Korean military training was detrimental to allied deterrence and defense capabilities.
A former senior U.S. defense official characterized it as a “big problem” for U.S. pilots and crews, noting they were “less ready by the time they left [South Korea] than when they arrived.”
The resumption of allied combined military exercises is a welcome development, particularly in light of North Korea’s unrelenting development of new military capabilities. Beyond restoring allied military capabilities, the exercises are also necessary for progress toward the eventual return of wartime operational command of South Korean forces from Combined Forces Command.
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of the Combined Forces Command.
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