U.S. Soldiers Strengthen Alliance, Readiness With South Korean Partners
The 8th U.S. Army is prepared for combat operations at any time, its commanding general, Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Vandal, said.
Stationed in the Asia-Pacific region, the 8th Army is especially ready to assist its partner, South Korea, in any combined endeavor, the general added.
Vandal, who also serves as the chief of staff for the South Korean-U.S. Combined Forces Command, offered these reassurances at a May 24 symposium on advancing joint and multinational integration of land forces in the Pacific sponsored by the Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare.
The South Korean-U.S. team is much more than just a combined training effort, Vandal continued. Both armies are integrating members at the headquarters level to increase cooperation and compatibility, he noted. In fact, he said, the 8th Army's major subordinate command consists of the U.S. Army's only major combined fighting force, the 2nd Infantry Division/Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Division, or RUCD.
Vandal recalled that he was part of the planning effort for the combined force in his previous assignment, when he commanded the 2nd Infantry Division. The combined division was activated in 2015, and Vandal spoke of the positive impact it has had on joint operations.
"Today, hand-picked, [South Korean] officers, the best of the best, are an integral part of the staff," he said. "Now, we're adding [South Korean] staff noncommissioned officers as well."
The combined division also has built a close training relationship with the 8th Republic of Korea Infantry Division, he added, because the two units would fight alongside each other should the wartime operations plan ever be executed.
The two armies also are pursuing other efforts to integrate their commands, the general said.
"Eighth Army is going to become a combined ground component command that will be established in 2018," he said, noting that he will then become the deputy ground component commander, working for a South Korean four-star general.
While these integration efforts involve the headquarters staff, an integration effort also is underway involving the Weapons of Mass Destruction Elimination Task Force, he said.
As rotational brigade combat teams flow into theater, he explained, they will be operationally controlled by either the RUCD or by the 17th Republic of Korea Infantry. Elements from those brigades would then form the task force, which will be integrated down to the battalion level and below, "providing the synergy of the best of both nations' armies," the general said.
The United States will provide both technology elements and maneuver forces to the task force, while South Korea will primarily contribute maneuver forces, "particularly light infantry that are so beneficial to conducting these mission sets for WMD elimination," he said.
In addition to task force contributions, the U.S. Army also conducts frequent exercises to maintain readiness. "I would say our exercise [operations tempo] is the highest in the Army," Vandal said, "and the reason I say that is because we must be ready to fight tonight."
He noted two of the large exercises: Key Resolve, held each March, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian, or UFG, held each August. "They're probably the largest exercises in the U.S. Army," he said.
The UFG involves some 400,000 South Korean government personnel all the way up to the cabinet level, plus 40,000 military participants, Vandal said. "It's a whole-of-government approach to their national security and they are all in," he added.
Besides those two exercises, numerous smaller ones also take place, the general told the symposium audience.
In addition to the 8th Army, higher commands such as the United Nations Command are working to expand U.N. participation in exercises. Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks is the commander of United Nations Command, as well as of Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea.
Of the 17 nations that contributed forces and material in the Korean War, "all participate and are committed to the U.N. Command," Brooks said. "So we are looking at how to expand their participation in future exercises."
For example, he said, the Canadian forces provided a division during last year's UFG exercise for the first time. If a conflict emerged, that Canadian division would be part of the I Corps, but under the operational control of the 3rd Republic of Korea Army.
Vandal pointed to an increase in countries' participation in these exercises over the years and said he is optimistic that such involvement will increase.
In addition to exercises, the topic of multidomain battle, known as MDB, took up a large portion of the symposium. The MDB concept encourages units to engage the enemy in all domains -- air, sea, land, cyber, space -- in the context of a joint operation.
"We are doing a lot of that already," Vandal said, providing three examples.
First, during this month's Warrior Strike counter-WMD exercise, the U.S. Army flew a task force onto a South Korean amphibious carrier. From there, the unit did an air assault on a suspected WMD underground facility. The exercise involved naval, ground and air components of the U.S. and South Korean forces.
"You can well imagine the complexity of doing something like that," Vandal said, adding that the exercise was realistic and would be a top priority should a real situation unfold.
A second recent exercise involved integrated Apache helicopters from the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, along with the U.S. naval component from U.S. 7th Fleet, U.S. Special Forces, and a South Korean air component. That too was complex, Vandal said.
Third, South Korea and the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps came together to test combined joint logistics over-the-shore operations, involving the use of rail, inland waterways and air terminal supply point capabilities. That exercise focused on sustaining the combined force and involved bringing in a floating dock and establishing an expeditionary port so U.S. Army and Marine materiel could be transported to the proper unit.
"The piece that needs to be worked harder is the cyber and the space integration to make all five domains integrated. That's the way ahead," Vandal added.
Transformation Through Consolidation
The integration efforts and exercises are part of a large-scale transformation of the forces in the area. "Transformation of 8th Army, and arguably the transformation for the whole peninsula for U.S. Forces Korea, is the most dramatic since 1953," Vandal said.
As U.S. and South Korean units are combining, a huge base consolidation is occurring at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys. This consolidation effort isn't exactly recent, Vandal said, noting that it has been going on for about 10 years and involves moving soldiers, Army civilians, contractors and families from some 120 installations mostly north of the Han River -- which runs through the South Korean capital of Seoul -- and moving them into Camp Humphreys farther south.
Eighth Army and U.S. Forces Korea, located in Seoul, are part of that move, which costs $10.7 billion. Ninety-two percent of the moving costs are being paid by the South Korean government, Vandal reported.
"We've essentially tripled the size of Camp Humphreys," he said. By 2020, the transfers should be complete, with about 42,000 personnel on post.
Eighth Army is scheduled to be in place in Camp Humphreys by mid-July, with U.S. Forces Korea and RUCD on location by January.
Vandal referred to Camp Humphreys as "the crown jewel of overseas assignments" for soldiers and families, meaning that the base offers good quality of life and excellent family housing, along with facilities such as a post exchange and commissary. He added that it's "absolutely the best overseas installation I've seen, and probably the largest."
An added benefit of the move is increased forced protection, he said, because with everyone in one place, it will be more efficient to evacuate family members should the need occur.
The expansion of Camp Humphreys is "a commitment to the alliance" -- a fiscal commitment by the South Koreans and a military commitment by the United States to provide stability and security -- not just for Korea, but for the entire region, the general said.
Nurturing the Alliance
For soldiers of the 8th Army, Vandal emphasized, "the center of gravity in Korea is the alliance, and each one of us has a responsibility, from private to general officer, to help nurture that alliance."
"We do it through combined training. We do it through relationship building. We do it through community interaction. So collectively, it helps us build a strong, healthy relationship," he added.
That relationship is encapsulated in the Korean phrase that the U.S. soldiers have adopted: "Kapshi Kapshida," he said, which means "Let's Go Together."
Lastly, Vandal spoke directly to his soldiers: "You serve here with a sense of purpose. You see a threat," he said. "You look at it every single day. You are focused on that threat, and because of that sense of purpose, you are very much focused on being ready to fight tonight, from the youngest private to every general officer."