This week is week three of Key Resolve Foal Eagle – the annual US-South Korean joint war games that led to alarming war tensions on the Korean peninsula in 2013.
What’s different about this year’s exercise is that it will test for the first time a strategy called “tailored deterrence” in preparation for a potential nuclear attack from North Korea. This is a very offensive strategy as it contains provisions for a preemptive strike based on even a suspicion of North Korean missile launch activity. Its aim is to strike first and eliminate the missile site prior to launch. This is missile offense, not defense, and escalates, rather than deters, the potential for military confrontation. For a good exposition of what tailored deterrence and kill chain will mean for the Korean peninsula – read Gregory Elich’s What’s Annoying the North Koreans?
This year’s exercise raises the threat of war for another reason. The photo above is of Yeonpyeong Island three years ago after an artillery exchange between North and South Korea that took place during the US-South Korean “Hoguk” military exercises. South Korean troops fired 900 live artillery rounds into contested waters towards North Korea and North Korea fired back. The skirmish killed four people on Yeongpyeong Island.
Since the incident, no provisions have been adopted to prevent such an incident from happening again. In fact, if the same skirmish were to recur, it could have even direr consequences. Last year, US and South Korean authorities adopted a counter provocation plan, which calls for US and South Korean forces to retaliate immediately in the event of any perceived provocation from the north, with the aim of taking out the source of the attack. A situation like that can quickly escalate into a full scale confrontation. Referring to the plan, a senior U.S. administration official admitted, “Overreaction by South Korea is a real risk.” In other words, increased tensions during US-South Korean joint war games can lead to a local military skirmish – like what happened on Yeongpyeong Island three years ago – which can in turn trigger overreaction and quickly spiral into full scale war.
According to a 1978 House Armed Services Committee report, the ongoing state of war on the Korean peninsula makes South Korea the best training ground for US forces. The presence of a “real live adversary north of the DMZ” justifies the use of strategic weapons like B2s and B52s and provides an ideal situation for testing battle scenarios. For this reason, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of US troops are flown into Korea from not just nearby Guam and Okinawa, but also Hawaii as well as the U.S. mainland to participate in these exercises. Key Resolve is the world’s largest computer simulation exercise and routinely practices OPLAN 5027, which imagines full scale war on the Korean peninsula and calls for the emergency deployment of massive reinforcements from the U.S. mainland.