*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on June 24, 2016. It can also be found online here

“You had better get back to Korea,” the messenger whispered in U.S. Army Colonel W.H.S. Wright’s ear.

Wright sat on a Tokyo church pew on Sunday, June 25, 1950, about to put his family on a U.S.-bound plane, when the North Koreans attacked the Republic of Korea. Wright immediately flew back to Seoul’s smoky confusion to command the Korean Military Advisory Group’s (KMAG) 472 American soldiers assigned to build the new ROK Army. Without warning, the next day the entire ROK Army headquarters moved south. Then Wright received a dispatch from Washington promising military reinforcement and the ROK Army headquarters returned to Seoul. The two organizations were reunited.

It did not last long. After dark that night, Wright learned all South Korean Army units (including the headquarters for a second time) were withdrawing south through Seoul. Before Wright could react, a “tremendous explosion” knocked him to the ground.  The R.O.K. Army destroyed the only bridge over Seoul’s Han River, which stranded KMAG on the wrong (north) side. Wright ordered KMAG to withdrawal south, yet, with no way to cross the river, the US soldiers struggled until, at the last moment, South Korean Army Colonel Lee Chi Up led them to a large raft and to relative safety from North Korean forces.

In the annals of strategic history, this anecdote represents a list of everything you don’t want at the pointy end of a military alliance: no synchronization, no harmony, and no coordination.

Sixty-six years later, North Korea stubbornly persists as America’s “most volatile and dangerous threat” in the Indo-Asia Pacific. One year ago, a multi-national R.O.K.-U.S. Combined Division was created to improve tactical interoperability to counter this persistent foe. As new organizations are generally rare, and having served as a staff officer over the newborn Combined Division’s inaugural year, what follows is a focused reminiscence on the unit’s value, including an observation which finds the Combined Division’s structure might serve as a model for a common U.S. military ground operational problem: bridging cultural and national divides.

The R.O.K.-U.S. Combined Division’s establishment was an evolutionary solution. While strategic command has long been shared between the two countries (since the 1978 establishment of Combined Forces Command), never has this interoperability been pushed to such a low level, tactical echelon. While South Korean and American officers have shared offices in Seoul-based headquarters for nearly four decades, they’ve never shared tents, maps, and training areas to this degree. The Combined Division’s deputy commander is a South Korean Army brigadier general, and now South Korean and American staff officers work together in all division planning functions.

The challenges on the Korean Peninsula are an intensified version of many of the problems ground force planners face globally. In a world where war is expected to take place among the people, in Korea, the dominant terrain is people, particularly compared to America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. North Korea is three times more dense with people than Iraq and four times more so than Afghanistan. The Republic of Korea is 11 times denser than Afghanistan. Any war on the Korean Peninsula will turn on civilian considerations, made exponentially more difficult by the Combined Division’s Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction mission. Dealing with people amidst the myriad technical problems presented by WMD will be hard. Geography exacerbates both challenges: North Korea’s underground facilities and massive tunnel infrastructure enables surprise,  increasing the likelihood of North Korean hostage-taking.  And North Korea’s severe topography, akin to eastern Afghanistan’s famously hostile terrain, advantages small unit tactics – such as ambushes.  Thus, better trained and equipped North Korean holdouts will presumably harm more friendly flesh than anything the United States experienced in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The central challenge against the North Koreans is cross-cultural, played out against a military-technical and geographical backdrop – so how does the Combined Division provide value in this environment?

First, the United States and South Korea have shared interests and complementary capabilities. The R.O.K. Army brings numbers, local knowledge, language skills and passion to the Combined Division, while the U.S. contributes landpower jointly linked to powerful air and sea assets, extended nuclear deterrence, special operations, and experienced combat forces. Together, these troops are well positioned to leverage one another’s strengths.

Second, the imperative for integration rests with the American side, as in Korea, the U.S. military is the smaller part of the allied force (roughly 30,000 total US forces to over 600,000 ROK ground forces). To operate effectively inside such a larger force drives the need for planning together, directly: A recent paper described the five combat liaison teams the Combined Division must send to liaise with multiple R.O.K. Army Corps. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The widespread, tightly integrated planning process in which U.S. and R.O.K. officers work together at all levels is the truest and greatest advantage gained through the Combined Division – it’s less about a complementary balance sheet than it is about stumbling together through daily mistakes and mishaps. Every success in war is the product of a thousand failures in peace. Only in this environment can previously hidden flaws be exposed. For example, to the South Korean officers I’ve encountered, there is no linguistic distinction between the planning terms “on order” and “be prepared to.” To American planners, however, there is an enormous doctrinal gap between the two: “On order” indicates an action will indeed happen at some future point yet to be determined (a certain occurrence), while “be prepared to” refers to an action that must be planned for, yet may or may not happen (an uncertain occurrence). It is in the daily grind that these meaningful national differences get fleshed out, beyond experiencing the natural frictions of working across cultures (i.e. levels of formality, work schedules, etc.).

While slower in the near term, the Combined Division’s process of forced mutual dependency will undoubtedly prove valuable in the long run, with a vision that aims for seamless interoperability – frictionless tactical and operational connectedness in service to strategic objectives. As US ground forces are likely to continue fighting in multi-national contingents, this ideal ought to guide US ground force units working alongside host, partner, and allied military forces. Simply put, the goal should be to work as well with forces from other nations as we do with our own national forces.

In Korea, there’s a new commander and chance to invigorate the South Korean-U.S. alliance by expanding such mutual dependencies. Since strategic shocks are, by definition, shocking – the window for response might again be as short as in 1950, and the Combined Division’s pursuit of seamless interoperability is the right step forward to contend with the North Korean threat – building synchronization, building harmony, and building coordination – all to the “left of boom.” Which is something Colonel Wright would appreciate.

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