US and South Korea Pursue Readiness Without Big Exercises

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford addresses the 2018 Military Reporters and Editors Conference in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 26. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jasmine Mieszala.

US and South Korean forces are looking for new ways to maintain readiness while diplomats work to peacefully denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said Oct. 26.

A week after the US cancelled its second major exercise with South Korea, Dunford told journalists at the Military Reporters and Editors Conference in Arlington, Va., the US military must carefully balance two sometimes competing tasks:

  • Support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the peninsula. “That’s job one,” Dunford said. His guidance from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was “very clear:” Give Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whatever he needs, which includes ensuring Pompeo is aware of everything the US military is doing on the peninsula.
  • Deter and be prepared to respond if deterrence fails. “Secretary Mattis has described that task as, ‘Assume today is your last day in peace and be ready,’” Dunford said. “We have to square those two, and there’s going to be puts and takes, and there’s going to be discomfort in the coming months because, by definition, as diplomatic progress moves ahead, there are going to be some changes in our military posture.”

For the military to get that balance right, Dunford said, it’s critical that military leadership be “candid” with political leadership about what risks the US is taking and for what purpose.

One day earlier, Dunford met with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Park Han-ki during the 43rd meeting of the US Military Committee in Washington, where the two spent about four hours discussing how to maintain readiness among US and South Korean forces without large-scale exercises. The North considers those exercises provocative and President Trump agreed to suspend such activity while the two sides seek to resolve differences and potentially denuclearize the peninsula.

Dunford said both sides will spend the “next several months” determining “what mission-essential tasks we must develop for proficiency”— and to find ways to exercise those capabilities. The allies must “take a look at the universe of possibilities” and accept that achieving readiness does not “have to be accomplished the way we’ve always done it.”