South Korean Air Force KF-16s escort an E-737 Peace Eye AEW&C aircraft at an airshow near Seoul on October 18, 2021.

South Korean Air Force KF-16s escort an E-737 Peace Eye AEW&C aircraft at an airshow near Seoul on October 18, 2021. Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images

US, S. Korea to Write New War Plan to Counter N. Korean Nukes, Missiles

During visit, defense chiefs also expected to announce Seoul will test for long-awaited operational control of joint forces in 2022.

ONBOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT—The U.S. and the Republic of Korea are expected to announce this week they will begin writing a new war plan for North Korea that takes into account Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile launch advances, two U.S. senior defense officials said Tuesday. 

At their annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul on Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Republic of Korea Defense Minister Suh Wook will announce new strategic planning guidance “to start the process of developing a new operational war plan,” said one of the officials, who briefed reporters traveling with Austin to Seoul.

“The DPRK has advanced its capabilities. The strategic environment has changed over the past few years,” the official said. “It’s appropriate and necessary that we have an OPLAN that is updated.” 

The officials noted that the current war plan for North Korea is around 10 years old. While the upcoming revision was not prompted by any immediate threat, “we have seen, certainly, advances in North Korean capabilities, particularly with respect to missile delivery capability. That is one set of issues that a new OPLAN would need to address,” the first official said. 

The new war plan will also take into account South Korea’s recent military advancements “and their ability to contribute to the plan” to counter North Korea, the second official said. 

Since September, the North has conducted a cruise missile test; a rail-launched short-range ballistic missile test; a reported hypersonic glide vehicle test; and a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, the officials noted. 

“We’re obviously in a period of somewhat heightened tensions,” the first official said. 

The release of strategic planning guidance directing a new OPLAN “will inaugurate an extensive and intensive effort where we review all of our assumptions, objectives, and end states with our ROK allies,” the first official said.

Austin and his counterpart are also expected to announce that they will conduct a full operational capability, or FOC, assessment next year of Korea’s ability to command combined U.S.-Korean forces under a wartime scenario. This test of operational control is “a significant milestone on the way toward OPCON transition, something that’s very important to our ROK allies, something that is also very important to us,” the official said. 

But transfer hinges on more than next year’s FOC test; Korea must also show that it has acquired certain military capabilities “related to ballistic missile defense,” the official said. 

News of the OPLAN re-write comes days after the Biden administration approved a new Global Posture Review, which calls for moving military resources from other theaters to bolster U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific. 

One of the goals of that review was to return diplomatic norms to overseas force posture decisions; Korea was one of several nations the U.S. consulted during the review for input. 

That has already resulted in the Pentagon approving permanent stationing of a previously rotational attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in Korea, in addition to the approximately 28,500 U.S. forces based there. Additional force posture decisions may come from this week’s consult, the officials said. 

Over the last few months, the U.S. and South Korea have also settled a cost-sharing special measures agreement that was stalled under the Trump administration.  

“Where we had issues that had been impediments and irritants, such as the special measures agreement related to U.S. forces on the peninsula, discussions about the size of the U.S. posture, that had been holding back progress in the alliance over the last couple of years— those have been resolved over the last several months,” the second official said.

While wider regional security will also be discussed, the officials did not offer many specifics on how they would further engage Korea to counter a rising China. Korea conducts more trade with China than it does with the U.S. and Japan combined, and the rising tensions between the two world powers has put it in a tough spot, Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong Kun said Nov. 15 at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event. 

“Interaction between Beijing and Washington, as it gets more competitive, we get really high tension within our foreign policy communities,” Choi said. “What kinds of impact will it have on our exporters, our market actors?”

“Foreign policy also should serve the needs and interests of Korean citizens, namely middle income class,” he said. 

That sensitivity is noted, the first U.S. official said. 

“We don’t ask our partners in the region to choose between the United States and China. We ask our partners to contribute to the rules-based order,” the official said. 

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley is also in Seoul for the concurrent Military Committee Meeting, with his Korean counterparts. Both sides are expected to discuss future joint military exercises during those sessions, the officials said. 

Large-scale joint exercises such as Foal Eagle and Ulchi Freedom Guardian were cancelled by former President Donald Trump as he pursued denuclearization talks with North Korea. Some lower-level exercises have resumed. For example, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Paul LaCamera recently conducted a combined command post exercise, which is a computer-simulated exercise that involved hundreds of U.S. and Korean forces but no actual military movements. Previous large-scale exercises, for comparison, involved hundreds of U.S and Korean warplanes and thousands of personnel drilling together. 

Whether the large-scale exercises will return is unclear. Korea is keen to make gains in peace talks with North Korea and is hopeful it will obtain an official declaration of the end of the Korean War which is still being negotiated with Pyongyang.

North Korea sees the large-scale exercises as a provocation and has often responded militarily, such as by missile test.  

But a continued lag in such exercises between could erode U.S.-Korean readiness to respond and operate jointly in a conflict. 

Whether large-scale exercises return “is something we are in constant sort of discussion with our ROK counterparts about,” the first official said. It will be discussed at the [Military Committee Meeting]. Both the proper scope, scale, and complexity of exercises is an ongoing discussion.”