A few days ago, the Marmot linked this RAND report on South Korea’s Defense Reform Plan (DRP). The report starts with some alarming disclaimers: it could not access much of the ROK MND’s classified information on strength levels or weapons systems, and the author has no experience (!) analyzing defense budget requests. Nonetheless, the author was able to pull together enough knowable facts to convince me that the DRP will come unglued. How fast? Without a national emergency, I give it five years; with one, I give it five hours. Although I encourage you to read the whole thing, here’s my executive summary:
– South Korea is shrinking its force significantly. At the same time, it means to rely on fewer conscripts. It means to do all this without the USFK. Even with the reductions, it’s going to hit a demographic wall in a few years due to its birthrate, one of the lowest in the industrialized world (more).
– To an extent, the force reduction is illusory, too. Much of it comes from reducing the Army from 47 divisions to 24, mainly at the expense of those assigned to protect the ROK itself in case of war. How? In large part, by transferring the coastal defense function to the police, who have to compete with the Army for that same shrinking pool of manpower.
– All of this is going to cost more — about 10 % more each year through 2010, and then a modest increase of just under 9% through 2015 — because (as I often said while assigned to the USFK) we brought most of the expensive gear to the fight: aviation, logistics, command/control, radar systems, and generally the preponderance of the high-end aircraft, missiles, and armor. Most of the ROK stuff uses Vietnam-era technology and will need to be replaced in the next 10 years (most of the USFK’s ground combat power will be gone long before then). Now — do you really think the National Assembly is going to approve all of those steep, successive budget increases? I suggest that the MND read more about Taiwan’s situation. Can Korea really develop new missiles, a new attack aircraft, and its KHX helicopter with its paltry research budget? Don’t bet on it.
– The plan assumes GDP growth of 7.1% (!!), the kind of insanely unrealistic projection you expect from the North Koreans. Assuming that natural economic cycles cease, and that there are no more recessions, GDP growth projections are closer to 4%.
– Koreans seem not to realize that retaking wartime command, while an understandable goal, means the effective end of the USFK’s ground component. See footnote 19:
The U.S. military is generally unwilling to subordinate its forces to a foreign commander in wartime. As a result, the current CFC has a U.S. commander, just as does the current NATO Supreme Allied Command, Europe. But President Roh is insisting that a ROK oï¬ƒcer command all ROK forces in wartime. Since such an oï¬ƒcer would also command U.S. forces if the CFC framework were retained, this change would require terminating CFC. U.S. forces could still potentially remain in Korea, though the number would probably be signiï¬cantly reduced, and U.S. forces would likely transition to a supporting role to the ROK military. Alliance planning would be replaced by separate ROK and U.S. planning.
– There’s something fundamentally wrong with a defense plan for Korea that plans to win with smaller numbers and more technology. Fine, if you’re going to fight the Yom Kippur War or Desert Storm, or defend the Taiwan Strait. NOT so fine if the threat you’re facing includes Special Forces, sleeper agents, guerrillas, a fifth column, WMD attacks, roads clogged with refugees mingled with all of the above…. No realistic projection for conflict in Korea will NOT be infantry-intensive. Finally, take this fact in: in the event of a North Korean collapse, RAND estimates that it will take 440,000 troops to restore order if the regime collapses in the North. Even at today’s higher strength, the South may not have the forces to do that.
– Ditto the Navy: it’s investing in big ships like submarines and cruisers, at the expense of coast patrol craft. Cruisers have obvious uses in missile defense, and both have uses for maintaining naval superiority, but I’d be much less worried about North Korea’s decreptic Russian cast-off Navy than its special forces coming in on small rubber boats. That is, unless you’re basing your national defense strategy on a projected war over Tokdo. In which case, Korea needs to factor in the massive military buildup that’s on the way, courtesy of Kim Jong Il, with the grateful cooperation of president-to-be Shinzo Abe.
– Unless the ROK intends to research, design, test, crew, and deploy every major military system it needs all by itself, its defense plan simply won’t going to work without some strong alliances. Japan and the United States would be logical choices, but domestic politics are destroying both of those options. And you have to ignore a lot of very bad historical precedent to invite Chinese troops into Korea.
Again, I think independent defense ought to be Korea’s goal, but Korea needs a much better plan for managing it, one that takes its defense realities into account. Unfortunately, the politics of emotion and the gratuitous alienation of Japan and the United States over “pride” issues have made it difficult to gain U.S. cooperation in any gradual USFK force reductions or defense assistance — the kind that permits Israel’s robust independent defense — that might have made that process feasible. Nor can Korea necessarily count on the help of U.S. forces over the horizon. It’s a bleak picture for South Korea, and in hindsight, the reasons it brought itself to this state of affairs seem hard to explain.