At the final press conference of a whirlwind summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, President Donald Trump announced off-hand that the United States would end what he called its “provocative war games” with South Korea. While the summit itself is a reasonable beginning to what may turn out to be a diplomatic solution to this knotty international problem, to immediately fulfill that promise would be a grave error. After decades as a senior military officer, I cannot imagine simply stopping these useful, sensible and necessary military exercises without first seeing tangible progress in terms of not only denuclearization by North Korea, but also demilitarization by that nation, which fields the fourth-largest army in the world.
Let’s begin with the basics. First, these are not “war games,” which are generally considered to be tabletop exercises that intellectually probe various tactical and strategic options in a given scenario. These are operational military exercises in which ships, aircraft, ground forces and special operators actually practice executing defined war plans. These are like a football team running plays in practice until the movements of the various team members becomes utterly instinctive; or a tennis player hitting thousands of topspin forehands until she can effortlessly nail the shot in an actual match. To have forces forward-deployed without the benefit of this kind of practice would be negligent in the extreme, and it could lead to major combat losses in a real fight.
Second, it is important to understand the scale of these exercises. We do them constantly, often on a weekly basis, with larger events monthly and truly grand-scale exercises a couple of times a year. A weekly exercise might be a U.S. engineering company working alongside our South Korean partners to practice clearing battlefield obstructions. Each month might see our fighter jets in mock combat over the skies of South Korea. A big semi-annual event would include warships from the U.S., Japan, Australia, Singapore and other allies operating together at sea off the coasts of the Korean peninsula. One of the largest annual exercises is Ulchi Freedom Guardian, scheduled for this fall, which could bring about 70,000 U.S. and South Korean troops together to practice warfighting. If we were to unilaterally stop all of those exercises, our readiness would suffer considerably, given all they do to prepare us to “fight tonight” — the motto of U.S. Forces Korea.
There is also a highly negative impact on the seriousness with which our allies — notably South Korea, but also other Indo-Asian partners like Australia, Singapore, and India — view our military capability. One of the reasons our allies, partners and friends want to operate with the United States is the professionalism and readiness of our military. All of that is honed by these exercises — and reduced when we stop conducting them. This announcement shocked them. It will cause our allies to hesitate in aligning with us going forward.
Finally, the U.S. military itself would suffer a drop in morale if not allowed to practice for war. Nobody knows better than our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines how important exercising the military is to the chances of victory. As the military saying goes, the “more you bleed in practice, the less you die in war.” Training hard and realistically — along with providing proper equipment and leadership — is part of the bedrock of the U.S. military ethos. Additionally, the announcement seemed to catch the Pentagon by surprise, and the cavalier way in which the President rolled it out will diminish the confidence that the troops — and the Secretary of Defense himself — have in the Commander-in-Chief.
What is particularly troubling is that we’ve provided this bargaining chip seemingly without getting anything in return other than vague promises for eventual denuclearization. Even if that actually happens — and it has been promised before with no actual results — the North Korean massive conventional force (including a million-plus man army) would pose a significant threat to the south. Without U.S. military presence and these exercises, there is every possibility that North Korea would become the dominant actor on the peninsula, especially with Chinese backing. Stopping the exercises plays into the hands not only of North Korea but also of China, right as it reduces America’s readiness for dealing with military contingencies.
Both allies and our own military probably take some solace that the President at least stopped short of announcing the actual withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. But he has mused about this in the past and will probably take up that note again. He seems to see all of this — stopping the military exercises, consulting with allies, stationing troops overseas — as expensive and troublesome. What he misses is that it is part of a coherent whole that creates a network of allies and coalition partners around the world who are willing to stand with us on the big issues.
When I commanded the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, we had 150,000 troops from about 50 nations alongside us: the 27 other NATO partners and many more who came because of a belief in the professionalism, credibility and capability of the U.S. armed forces. Snap decisions to stop our exercises, even when in the cause of moving a peace process forward, can hurt us badly across the globe. We should continue exercising with South Korea unless or until Kim Jung Un shows us concrete steps in dismantling not only his nuclear weapons program but his massive conventional forces as well.