The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and United States armies will stand-up a new, joint military formation this summer. The combined forces division, dubbed the “U.S.-ROK Combined Division” (or “ROK-U.S. Combined Division” 한미 연합 사단)*, will formally activate on June 3 at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea. The Combined Division will add South Korean staff officers to the existing U.S. 2nd Infantry Division command structure as well as an indirectly attached ROK mechanized infantry brigade, which will take part in all unit training. While U.S. and ROK military officials praise the Combined Division as a way to improve readiness against a potential North Korean attack, its advances in joint staffing and ROK Army officer development could also potentially alter the nature of joint training, as well as play an important role in any future transfer of the wartime operational control to the ROK military.
It appears that the Combined Division will, with a few critical exceptions, keep the current structure of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division (U.S. 2ID). U.S. 2ID, currently headquartered in Uijeongbu, South Korea (but scheduled to relocate to Pyeongtaek in 2016) will serve as the new Combined Division’s command element. The commander of U.S. 2ID, a U.S. two-star general, will also serve as the commander for the new Combined Division, with a ROK one-star general serving as the division’s deputy commander. In addition, approximately 30 ROK mid-level officers will take important staff positions with the headquarters, working alongside U.S. counterparts.
In peacetime, the U.S. Eighth Army-subordinate Combined Division will include the aforementioned U.S. 2ID headquarters element, which is where most of the true “combining” of the U.S. and ROK staffs will take place. In addition, it will retain both its subordinate U.S. 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, currently located at USAG Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, and its subordinate U.S. 210th Field Artillery Brigade, which will remain north of Seoul. However, the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT) will be deactivated as the Combined Division comes online. It will be replaced by a series of U.S. brigade combat teams, which will take turns rotating to South Korea from their garrisons in the United States, serving nine-month tours before they rotate back. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd BCT will be the first to serve in this role when it arrives this June. A number of other U.S.-based units, although none as large as the incoming 2nd BCT, have already conducted trial deployments.
Although the ROK 16th Infantry Brigade is nominally part of the Combined Division, it is only indirectly attached during peacetime. In the event of war with North Korea, however, it will come under the direct control of the Combined Division. That being said, the ROK unit has trained closely with its U.S. counterparts, and will continue to do so.
In the event of hostilities with the North, the Combined Division would maneuver its U.S. and ROK subordinates to meet its objectives, although at this point those are somewhat unclear. In speaking with the U.S. publication Army Times in January 2015, then U.S. 2ID commander Major General Thomas Vandal stated that the Combined Division’s capabilities and concept would need to be developed throughout training in 2015, with “full mission capability” coming by October 2015.
In all likelihood however, there will not be many dramatic changes, at least in peacetime. While ROK staff officers assigned to the Combined Division began working with their U.S. counterparts in January, the ROK 16th Infantry Brigade will not be directly attached to 2ID. They will train together, but the division’s subordinate units will be stationed at different bases and live apart. And although having ROK commissioned officers serving in a combined U.S. unit is new, with the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) program, essentially every major U.S. Army unit in South Korea since the Korean War has had conscripted ROK personnel assigned to it. Granted, the ROK officers will have far more responsibilities than the conscripts, but it is not as if a U.S. unit staffed with ROK personnel is completely unprecedented.
One possible effect, however, is that U.S. and ROK forces may be able to conduct a greater amount of joint staff and field training, and with a lower profile, outside of the major joint exercises. Key Resolve/Foal Eagle, which typically runs from late February to early April, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which lasts for roughly a month in the late summer, are a major point of contention between North Korea and the ROK-U.S. alliance. While it is unlikely that the exercises will stop completely, the Combined Division concept could possibly serve to limit the duration and visibility of the exercises.
Most importantly, however, it is likely that the Combined Division is intended as a sort of training pipeline for mid-level ROK officers being groomed for tactical command positions. This would be important on its own, but it’s also a crucial step for the ROK Army in its preparations for the elusive transfer of wartime operational control. While ROK general officers have worked with their U.S. counterparts at the Combined Forces Command on theater-wide concerns for decades, the Combined Division will provide opportunities for ROK field grade officers – majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels – to train and work in a joint environment. This is significant, because these ROK field grade officers will take the experience of operating on a joint staff with them as they later move to command battalions and brigades, key maneuver elements which will have to coordinate with U.S. forces in the event of hostilities with the North.
*Given its usage in statements made by U.S. officials, it appears that for at least the time being, “U.S.-ROK Combined Division” is not merely the descriptor but the actual name of the new joint unit.
Featured image: Flickr, 2nd Infantry Division U.S. Army
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