S. Korea, US to revive large-scale field training exercises after 5-year hiatus

By Ji Da-gyum
Published : March 3, 2023 - 17:21

South Korean and US engineering soldiers conduct a joint river-crossing drill via a pontoon bridge over the Namhan River in Yeoju, 65 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Oct. 19, 2022. (Republic of Korea Army)

South Korea and the United States will revive theater-level field training exercises after a five-year hiatus to enhance the alliance’s defense and readiness posture against escalating threats from North Korea.

The annual springtime combined exercise, dubbed as “Freedom Shield,” will be staged from March 13-23, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States Forces Korea said Friday in a joint statement.

“Freedom Shield is designed to strengthen defense and response capabilities of the Alliance by focusing within the exercise scenario on things such as, the changing security environment, DPRK aggression and lessons learned from recent wars and conflicts,” the statement read, referring to North Korea by the acronym of its full name, Democratic People’s Republic Korea.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said it would stage combined training exercises presenting real-life scenarios in view of the ongoing war in Ukraine and advancing North Korean threats.

In that sense, the allies agreed to hold the military exercise for 11 straight days. The previous combined military exercises had a weekend break and consisted of two sessions, which respectively aimed to simulate repelling North Korean attacks and practice counteroffensive operations to secure the safety of the capital.

Col. Lee Sung-jun (R), spokesman of South Korea`s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Col. Isaac Taylor, spokesman of the U.S. Forces Korea, hold a joint press conference at the defense ministry in Seoul on March 3, 2023, to announce that South Korea and the United States plan to kick off a combined springtime military exercise later this month as they are striving to beef up deterrence against North Korea`s evolving nuclear and missile threats. The Freedom Shield exercise is scheduled to take place from March 13-23 without a break, marking the longest-ever edition of their joint computer-simulation command post exercise. (Yonhap)

Revival of theater-level exercises
South Korea’s JCS and the USFK said the allies will also conduct a number of large-scale combined field training exercises, or FTX, that have returned to the scale of the now-defunct Foal Eagle exercises to “improve combined operation execution capabilities.”

The last theater-level Foal Eagle exercises were staged in April 2018. They were suspended by the previous Moon Jae-in government to support diplomatic efforts to encourage North Korea’s denuclearization.

The allies staged battalion or below-level field training exercises in the aftermath of the signing of the inter-Korean comprehensive military agreements signed on Sep. 19, 2018.

South Korea and the US forces later revived and conducted regiment-level field training exercises during the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise last fall, under the Yoon Suk Yeol government. The allies will now bring back theater-level field training exercises, including a combined amphibious drill.

The Korea Herald learned that a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and other US strategic assets will likely be deployed during the upcoming exercise, though Seoul and Washington have not officially confirmed this.

The allies name the Freedom Shield combined exercises “Warrior Shield,” which represents the “alliance’s capability and resolution to ensure a combined defense posture to defend the ROK,” the joint statement read, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, Republic of Korea.

The USFK said Warrior Shield aims to “further enhance the ROK and US militaries’ cooperation through air, land, sea, space, cyber and special operations, and improve upon tactics, techniques and procedures,” in a separate press statement.

“The exercise will include but not be limited to lessons learned from current and ongoing conflicts to increase the units’ combat readiness and combined defense posture, as well as strengthen the security and stability on the Korean peninsula and across Northeast Asia,” the USFK said.

The USFK also notably announced that “participating units will include personnel from the ROK Military, United States Forces Korea (USFK), United Nations Command (UNC), and subordinate component commands under CFC, along with augmentees, civilian personnel and representatives of the United Nations sending states” in the standalone statement.

The air forces of South Korea and the United States stage a joint drill over the western sea and central inland South Korea on Friday. The exercise involves a B-1B strategic bomber from the US and F-15K and KF-16 aircraft from South Korea. (South Korea`s Defense Ministry)

Defensive in nature
Though the USFK’s independent statement suggested that the allies diverged in opinion on what to disclose and highlight in terms of Freedom Shield, both sides dismissed North Korea’s calls to stop combined military exercises and its threat to take tit-for-tat military action.

Kwon Jong-gun, director general of the Department of US Affairs of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, warned that the US will face consequences if “it persists in its hostile and provocative practices” against North Korea in a statement issued on Feb. 24. Kwon said if the US continues to conduct military drills with South Korea and deploy US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea can regard such acts as a “declaration of war” against the country.

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister and a vice department director of the Party Central Committee, also warned that the “frequency of using the Pacific as our firing range depends upon the US forces’ actions,” in a statement issued on Feb. 20.

“We’ve conducted routine training like UFS (Ulchi Freedom Shield) and Freedom Shield for decades that have been defensive in nature, and so that's what we will continue to do this year and remain committed to our defense of the Republic of Korea,” USFK spokesperson Col. Isaac Taylor said when asked about North Korea’s warnings during a televised joint briefing held at South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

South Korea’s JCS said the allies will stage Freedom Shield while “maintaining firm military readiness in preparation for North Korean provocations.”

“Our military will not tolerate North Korea’s provocations that threaten the life and safety of our people and violate the Sept. 19 military agreement,” JCS spokesperson Col. Lee Sung-jun said during the briefing. “We will sternly respond to such acts with the alliance’s overwhelming capabilities.”

As part of their efforts, South Korean and US air forces staged aerial drills involving US’ B-1B Lancer strategic bomber over the western sea and central inland South Korea on Friday, according to South Korea’s  Defense Ministry.

The US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle -- employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets -- has also been deployed for the first time on the peninsula for the combined exercises.

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)


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