Last year's U.S. suspension of some military exercises it conducts in South Korea represents neither a concession to other actors in the region nor diminishment of training or readiness for U.S. or South Korean forces on the peninsula, the top U.S. commander there said.
Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, spoke May 22 at a symposium on land forces sponsored by the Association of the United States Army in Honolulu.
"As I've stated — and I want to be crystal clear about it: Combined training and readiness? It hasn't slowed down one bit," Abrams said. "And we are continuing to conduct very rigorous combined training at echelon."
Already in 2019, he said, more than 100 exercises have taken place. The biggest difference now, is that neither the United States nor South Korea is as vocal about that training, he added.
"We go about the quiet, professional work that our militaries [do], continuing to keep our readiness at a very high level," Abrams said. "All contributing to very strong combined defense posture."
In the past, he said, large-scale military exercises served both as high-profile deterrence efforts and as a means to maintain proficiency and competency. While newer exercises will be lower key, the general told the symposium, they do continue to reinforce mission-essential tasks for both U.S. and South Korean forces at all levels. Abrams said adjustments have been made to the size, scope, volume and timing of those exercises.
"This was a prudent action in support of diplomacy," he said, the result of which is "bringing us into harmony with ongoing diplomatic efforts."
The United States and South Korea "field the most capable and the most disciplined ready combined force anywhere on the planet," the general said.
Abrams also hammered home, several times, that the relationship between the two nations is as strong as it ever has been.
"We refer to it as 'ironclad,'" he said. "In fact, I can confidently stand before you this morning and state that the alliance remains not just ironclad, but stronger, and more ready than ever."
Three elements contribute to that strength, he said, including shared sacrifice, common core values, and a demonstrated commitment to the partnership. That commitment is evidenced by the strong U.S. forward-posture on the Korean Peninsula, its deployment of defense technology and resources, and its rotation of personnel and equipment.
The South Korean commitment is evident in part by the emphasis it has put on its own defense, Abrams said, noting that South Korea not only has grown its economy since 1960, but also has put equal emphasis on its military capability.
"When it comes to fielding and resourcing a highly capable, disciplined, ready force postured for self-defense and to contribute to regional security and stability, we describe [South Korea] as an exemplary ally," Abrams said, adding that its armed forces have "come of age."
The South Korean government has committed to growing its defense budget "to historic levels" — up to 8.2% growth by 2020 — Abrams said, which will bring its total defense budget to 3.7% of the nation's gross domestic product.
Click here to watch the general's entire keynote address.