The U.S.-South Korean Combined Infantry Division Shows the Alliance is Closer than Ever


The 2nd U.S. Infantry Division recently held a ceremony to activate the first-ever combined division of U.S. and South Korean (ROK) forces. Rather than being a regression away from the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces — which would have separated the alliance command structure — this is a statement of profound operational trust that builds on a long history of combined operations between the various military organizations of these two allies. At a time when the United States faces fiscal pressures at home and China seeks to create fissures in the regional order, the U.S.-ROK alliance is moving closer together.

The current combined division concept, initiated during the tenure of Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon when he was the 2nd Infantry Division Commander, was nurtured by Maj. Gen. Thomas Vandal, and is now being implemented by Maj. Gen. Theodore Martin. It marks a fundamental continuity with, not devolution from, alliance history. During the Korean War, Gen. Paik Sun Yip’s 1st Infantry Division was assigned to the U.S. I Corps. At that time, the Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army program (KATUSA) and the Korean Service Corps (KSC) were both established, and continue to this day. Even today, the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) is arguably the most integrated combined staff in the world, including ROK and U.S. general officers who alternate between primary and deputy positions not only among the command and staff, but also in corresponding appointments down to the lowest action officer levels. Even Japan has expressed interest in establishing a combined command with the United States modeled on the ROK/U.S. CFC.

There have been many other operational examples of ROK and U.S. forces organized in a combined manner. The III U.S. Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps have occasionally been under the operational control of the Third ROK Army (TROKA) and First ROK Army (FROKA) in support of operational plans. There are also combined ROK/U.S. military service branch components, ranging from the Combined Forces Air Component Command (CFACC) to the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force (CUWTF). Suffice it to say that a combined division will not be difficult to make work — the concept nests within a rich tradition of ROK/U.S. alliance cooperation.

In addition to the numerous command examples above, ROK and U.S. units have routinely trained together in the decades since the Korean War; a history I’m a proud to be a part of. I recall 2nd Infantry Division units participating annually in what were then called the “Blue Dragon” river crossing exercises with ROK Marines at Kimpo. Like many others, I took part in battalion and brigade unit evaluation exercises, as well as the Super Bowl of military preparation — the exercise formerly known as Team Spirit, and today’s Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises. As a young 2nd Infantry Division company commander in the 1980s, I had a ROK counterpart in the 1st ROK Infantry Division. We planned and executed our own combined live-fire exercises, integrating his tank company with our infantry, TOW missile, scout and 4.2-inch mortar platoons. Combined operations aren’t just a top-down organizational chart drill; in my experience they’re a bottom-up phenomenon as well. All this training did more than just deter North Korea from invading; it gave rise to globally capable ROK combat forces, which fought with distinction in Vietnam and now operate in support of UN peacekeeping operations and other conflicts, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The combined division concept recognizes the nature of the threat and the environment in Korea. The combined division will be able to focus on one of the most important missions, on the peninsula during conflict or instability: locating and securing North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. A combined organization is well suited to this task because it harmonizes the unique capabilities, expertise, and strengths of each nation’s soldiers and their training and equipment. In addition, as U.S. forces move to a rotational force posture it will ensure more rapid integration of U.S. forces and enhance overall readiness of the division to accomplish its many missions.

An Alliance of Equals

Something entirely lost in media coverage of the decision to establish a combined division in Korea is the statement of trust and mutual respect it represents, as the alliance transitions from one of dominant and subordinate elements to co-equal partners. During the Korean War and much of the Cold War, U.S. forces were the dominant element of the United Nations Command (UNC), in charge of the fight against North Korea and China. But over time, the alliance evolved through the UNC architecture to establish the U.S. joint command, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and in 1978, CFC. For arguably the first time, the alliance has become one of equals.

Pundits and scholars who would criticize the mutually agreed upon delay of OPCON transfer to the ROK last year, on the grounds that it somehow deprives the ROK of sovereignty, fundamentally misunderstand the command structure that exists today for two reasons. First, combined operations are far superior to separate war-fighting elements in terms of military effectiveness, which remains the raison d’etre of the alliance. Second, control of CFC does not rest solely with the United States; it takes strategic direction from the ROK/U.S. Military Committee, which consists of representatives from both the ROK and U.S. national command. The maturity of the alliance negates the imperative for an OPCON transfer.

This point is missed, for example, by Kyle Johnson, writing in NK News:

Most importantly, however, it is likely that the Combined Division is intended as a sort of training pipeline for mid-level ROK officers being groomed for tactical command positions. This would be important on its own, but it’s also a crucial step for the ROK Army in its preparations for the elusive transfer of wartime operational control. While ROK general officers have worked with their U.S. counterparts at the Combined Forces Command on theater-wide concerns for decades, the Combined Division will provide opportunities for ROK field grade officers – majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels – to train and work in a joint environment. This is significant, because these ROK field grade officers will take the experience of operating on a joint staff with them as they later move to command battalions and brigades, key maneuver elements which will have to coordinate with U.S. forces in the event of hostilities with the North.

With all due respect to the author, this is an outdated American viewpoint that imagines our Korean allies as “little brothers” (and of course plays right into North Korean propaganda).  The combined division concept is by no means intended to be a “training pipeline” for mid-level ROK officers. CFC has more than just ROK general officers assigned. Many ROK officers, company and field grade, serve on the CFC staff, and they do so in equivalent proportions to their American staff officer counterparts.  Furthermore, many ROK officers have experienced U.S. professional military education (PME), as well as combined training at multiple levels on the Peninsula. These experiences benefit not just ROK officers, but the U.S. forces as well, who learn just as much from ROK soldiers as ROK soldiers learn from them. To suggest otherwise undermines the legitimacy and importance of the ROK/U.S. Alliance.

The establishment of the combined infantry division shows that the alliance is continuously adapting. Visionary ROK and U.S. leaders understand the threats that emanate from North Korea — guerrilla warfare, conventional forces, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and more — and have developed strategies to execute their mission: deter, defend, and when necessary, fight and win, as well as deal with the complexities of instability and regime collapse. The threat from the north is deadly, but the alliance is prepared for the full range of contingencies and the combined division will make it that much more ready for whatever comes next on the Korean Peninsula.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army