Monday, August 17, 2009

U.S. Forces Korea Chief Urges Seoul to Join US BMD

South Korea should participate in a U.S. regional missile defense network to thwart the lingering threat posed by North Korea's missile programs, the top American commander here said .

In an exclusive interview with The Korea Times, Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), said South Korea should develop a multi-layered missile defense system interoperable with the U.S. high-altitude ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield for defense against a possible North Korean missile attack, the top American commander here said Wednesday.

Sharp made the remarks at a time when tension is growing here amid reports that North Korea is preparing to test-fire a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States and has successfully deployed 3,000-kilomter-range short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles putting neighboring countries, such as Japan, Russia and India within striking distance.

``The ROK does not have a robust missile defense capability in place and this would likely be one of the bridging capabilities the U.S. would provide until the ROK improves this,'' Sharp said in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times this week. ROK is the acronym of South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.

In this regard, both the ROK and U.S. would benefit greatly from interoperability and the exchange of data between missile defense systems, said the general, who concurrently serves as chief of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the United Nations Command (UNC). ``We encourage the ROK to develop a layered and robust defense that provides protection at all levels.''

The United States has asked South Korea to participate in the U.S.-led global missile defense network, which Japan has already joined. Since 2004, Washington and Tokyo have been working jointly to develop a regional ballistic missile defense shield against possible attacks from Pyongyang, which fired a missile over Japan in 1998 and conducted a nuclear device test in 2006.

The U.S.-Japan defense system consists of up-to-date sea-to-air SM-3 missiles and PAC-3 interceptors. Previous liberal governments in South Korea opposed the idea of participating in the U.S. BMD effort, citing budget constraints and a possible backlash from North Korea and neighboring countries such as China and Russia.

The atmosphere has changed, however, as the Lee Myung-bak administration, which has put top priority on ties with the United States, is looking to cooperate with the BMD initiative amid the lingering threat posed by North Korea's missile programs, observers say.

South Korea, for its part, is on track to build an independent low-tier theater missile shied intended to engage the North's low-flying, short- and intermediate-range missiles with the help of early warning radars, Aegis-based SM-2 ship-to-air missile systems and modified PAC-2 interceptors.

``The North Korean ballistic missile threat to the ROK and its allies is very real,'' said Sharp. ``They have 800 increasingly sophisticated missiles, and have tested a missile that many think could reach the United States.''

8th Army Transformation

In the interview, Gen. Sharp said the Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA) headquarters in Seoul would be reorganized into an operational command post after 2012, when South Korean commanders take over wartime operational control (OPCON) of its armed forces from the U.S. military.

``Of course, it is no secret that we are in the progress of transforming our headquarters as part of the overall Army Transformation Plan,'' the four-star general noted. ``This transformation includes new equipment to keep us compatible with other U.S. Army units, and a reorganization of the headquarters into an operational command post, making it more capable of commanding and controlling fighting units in the event of hostilities.''

There will be the EUSA headquarters, in some form, maintained in South Korea ``for the foreseeable future, well past the scheduled OPCON transfer,'' he added.

The debate over moving the EUSA headquarters has been controversial since a 2007 agreement on the OPCON transfer because of the army command's symbolic status on the peninsula.

Established in 1944 in Memphis, Tennessee, the EUSA became the spearhead for the United Nations Command (UNC) to halt aggression from North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, and ultimately assumed overall responsibility for conducting ground operations on the peninsula under the command of a four-star American general.

But the command's roles and missions have been significantly reduced since the establishment of the CFC, which took charge of wartime operations on the peninsula in 1978. Since then, a three-star general has taken charge of the EUSA.

Apache Relocation

The USFK commander dismissed a possible security vacuum following the planned pullout of an AH-64 Apache helicopter battalion from the peninsula next month. The Apache battalion would not likely return to South Korea, he said.

``The U.S. remains committed to the security of the Republic of Korea. That commitment is unwavering,'' he said. ``The key consideration for the F-16 deployment to Korea was ensuring there was not gap in capability when the Apaches departed.''

Last November, the USFK announced one of the two Apache battalions was being relocated to Fort Carson, Colorado, until March, in order to make the unit available for rotational deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

A-10 ``tank killer'' jets were initially considered to replace the departing Apaches but the USFK withdrew the plan due to requirements for inspections and repairs to the A-10 fleet. Last week, 16 F-16s from Japan, instead of A-10s, arrived at an air base in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

Sharp said, ``While I would not rule out the possibility that the Apache battalion could return to Korea when it is no longer needed in support of the Global War on Terrorism, there are no plans for that to take place at this time.''

The F-16s can conduct a broad range of missions, including close air support, precision strikes and counter-air strikes, adding significant capability in several areas, he stressed.

The AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopter, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Hydra 70 laser-guided rockets are crucial assets for South's defense, as their main missions are to help prevent North Korean special forces from infiltrating the South by sea and neutralizing North Korean army's armored units crossing of the military demarcation line in case of war.


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