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Changing the Korean tour

Unit deployments would replace individual duty

Jul. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command along w
Bradley Fighting Vehicles arrive at Busan, South Korea, as part of an effort to build readiness of U.S. forces on the peninsula in 2011. The Army may begin rotating units on regular deployments to the area. (Spc. Bryan Willis / Army)
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Bradley Fighting Vehicles arrive at Busan, South Korea, as part of an effort to build readiness of U.S. forces on the peninsula in 2011. The Army may begin rotating units on regular deployments to the area. (Spc. Bryan Willis / Army)

South Korea by the Numbers

U.S. Army soldiers in South Korea
U.S. Army soldiers in Pacific theater
U.S. Army brigade combat team now in South Korea
Stars worn by the general who leads the U.S. force in the Pacific.

One-year individual tours to South Korea may soon be replaced by deployments of trained and equipped combat units that will go for upwards of nine months at a time.

One-year individual tours to South Korea may soon be replaced by deployments of trained and equipped combat units that will go for upwards of nine months at a time.

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One-year individual tours to South Korea may soon be replaced by deployments of trained and equipped combat units that will go for upwards of nine months at a time.

The Army is studying a plan that would rotate units in and out of South Korea — a plan that had the full support of Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, who relinquished command of U.S. Army Pacific on July 2.

The idea of moving to rotational forces, as opposed to individual replacements, has been in the works for at least two years. No official decision has been announced and talks with the Korean government are ongoing, but many defense analysts say the writing is on the wall.

“Think about the increase in the level of preparedness and the training state those units are in,” Wiercinski said. “It’s amazingly higher [and] now that makes them even more of a potent force on the ground.

“It’s a game-changer,” he added. “It makes great sense. Tank crews, aircrews, machine-gun crews, squads, platoons — if you’re constantly rotating key people in and out, you’re never fully trained to the best you can possibly be.”

The June 25 announcement of a massive brigade combat team reorganization by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno would appear to support this idea. He named 10 BCTs that will be inactivated and said one more would be cut. His speech left out one critical word found in his prepared statement: “overseas.”

To cut an overseas BCT significantly narrows the field.

Two are based in Europe: The 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team out of Vicenza, Italy. The other is the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team in South Korea.

The Army has cut two BCTs from Europe in recent years as it continues to beef up its Pacific presence. Odierno has long hinted that a honed rotational force on the Korea Peninsula would exponentially increase combat capabilities in the region.

Such a commitment would mark a significant change to the way the Army has done business for years, and the practice would increase the readiness of units stationed in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

The Army has about 19,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea, including the 2nd Infantry Division headquarters and the division’s 1st BCT. Other major units include the 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, the 1st Signal Brigade, the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the 65th Medical Brigade, the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade and Eighth Army.

The Army has been consolidating its forces in South Korea with a huge project to build up facilities at Camp Humphreys. U.S. Forces Korea broke ground July 18 on a $324 million operations command center at the installation, according to Stars and Stripes.

Wiercinski said the volatility on the Korean Peninsula has kept him up at night.

“This is a 29-year-old five-star general without a lot of diplomatic or international experience but with potentially dangerous weapons,” he said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “We need to be prepared for that. We need to be absolutely focused.”

That’s why officials at U.S. Army Pacific “fully support” moving to a rotational model, something the Army couldn’t do while it was committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wiercinski said.

“We certainly couldn’t do it during the last 11 years, but we’re out of Iraq and we’re pulling back from Afghanistan, and now the forces are available for us to consider this possibility,” he said. “[This] has the potential to be incredibly powerful. Now your force on the peninsula is truly ready to fight tonight.”

Who might go

I Corps and the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division will be responsible for the Pacific theater for the foreseeable future. The Army has dedicated 80,000 troops to U.S. Army Pacific and has raised the commanding general’s profile by changing the billet to a four-star one; it had been a three-star billet for many years. Roughly 7,300 soldiers are scheduled to conduct 230 activities in 20 countries in fiscal 2014 — most with a close eye on North Korea.

And while the 25th Infantry Division does not have armored BCTs — the type of BCT now in South Korea — the Army’s BCT reorganization plan announced in June will leave the service with 12 armored BCTs in places such as Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Carson, Colo.

The rotational model has strong support in the rank and file because it will enhance readiness. Most soldiers take three months to get in the groove after reporting to the peninsula, and many get a short-timer’s attitude when they are three months from leaving. That leaves six good months of service.

The constant ebb and flow of soldiers makes consistency hard to find.

“Because of the sheer number of first-termers [assigned to South Korea], every three months you’re qualifying tank crews,” said one officer with extensive experience on the peninsula. “There is constant turmoil trying to keep crews together on different weapons systems.”

In the rotational model, a fully trained and equipped unit is ready and able to provide defense, humanitarian assistance and participate in multinational exercises from start to finish. And such deployments are nothing new to Pacific soldiers. More than 150,000 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

But now the spotlight is on their backyard.

And the BCT reorganization optimizes the Army’s power projection. New and improved BCTs will have about 4,500 soldiers, an increase of about 1,000. This will enable a third maneuver battalion, as well as additional engineer and fires capabilities.

Specifically, engineer battalions will have gap-crossing and breaching capabilities while fires capability will go from a 2-by-8-gun fires battalion to a 3-by-6.

The changes follow “extensive modeling and analysis” that used 34 separate vignettes and 6,500 simulated battles that ranged from seven to 72 hours in length, said Col. Karl Konzelman of Army Operations and Plans’ Force Management Division. Extensive interviews were conducted with every division commander, dozens of combat BCT commanders and numerous battalion commanders and senior enlisted leaders.

The final result is more tooth and less tail. The Army will lose three battalions while greatly enhancing the 95 that remain.

It will also cut 12 headquarters. The reorganization puts more combat power at the tip of the spear, and then sharpens the tip, he said.

But that is not true of the BCTs stationed outside the continental U.S. They will stay at two maneuver battalions for now, mostly as a way to save on military construction costs, officials said.

That means a less capable BCT will take point in the world’s most dangerous place unless something changes.

Konzelman was quick to point out that a decision on the final BCT cut has not been made.

And while it seems the logical approach for many defense leaders and analysts, there are a couple of wild cards that could come into play.

One idea that has been floated in congressional and defense circles would keep the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team in South Korea while rotating other units throughout the theater.

After all, the Army has invested a ton of money modernizing that BCT in recent years:

■It has M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks and M2/M3A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

■The 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade has transitioned to UH-60L Black Hawks.

■The division took possession of 70 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.

The 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade is completing the Patriot Recapitalization Program.

“The Army Equipping Guidance 2013 Through 2016,” published June 20, seems to allude to such a scenario.

“Given recurring tensions in Korea, it is critical we keep units there ready to fight, prepare units for rotation to Korea, and balance new fieldings with training schedules,” it reads.

And it is not the first to make such allusions.

New defense strategy

Senior defense leaders on Jan. 26, 2012, unveiled a new defense strategy in light of pending budget cuts.

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta assured “an adaptable and battle-tested Army” would remain the nation’s force for decisive action, capable of defeating any adversary on land.

“We will have a significant land force presence in places like Korea and in the Middle East … and we will also emphasize a rotational presence” to establish partnerships and training in other countries, he said.

But this “best of both worlds” scenario begs the question: Where would you put the deployed force? The Land Partnership Plan is relocating forces from north of Seoul to Camp Humphreys, which is busting at the seams.

It is not clear what would happen to the 3,400 South Korean Army augmentees assigned to U.S units.

And there always is the question of cost.

Money would be saved by cutting the Korean BCT. While precise estimates aren’t available, an Army analysis of the reduction of two European BCTs estimated a savings of $2 billion over 10 years.

Not everyone will be happy with such savings — especially the 6,659 soldiers who receive a $300 monthly bonus for extending their Korean tours. Some are accompanied tours, which would continue, but many are unaccompanied soldiers who volunteered for a second year.

“People talk about the cost of basing a BCT in Korea, but rotating forces there would not be cheap either,” said one congressional staffer. “And you would have to ask where those units would be and what they would be doing. There are a number of U.S. military forces from all branches positioned throughout the region. But that place is a hot spot. If something goes down, you need to have a force that is ready to respond at a moment’s notice.”■

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