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SEOUL — The United States and South Korea are considering disbanding their combined command and creating independent military commands, with a restructured U.S. Forces Korea focusing on air and naval power, according to USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell.

Bell’s announcement came in a speech to the Korean National Assembly’s Defense Forum in Seoul on Thursday. He was unavailable for an interview Friday, but his spokesman provided a copy of the speech to Stars and Stripes.

Bell said that since October, the U.S. and South Korea have been studying Seoul’s request for independent operational command of its troops during wartime. Current agreements call for Bell — also commander of the Combined Forces Command and United Nations Command — to direct all combat operations.

“While no final decisions have been made, we are considering creating two independent commands — one ROK and one U.S., with U.S. forces in a supporting role, and restructured to take advantage of U.S. air and naval warfare capability,” Bell said.

It was unclear Friday whether the restructuring Bell mentioned could mean a drawdown of U.S. soldiers or an increase of Air Force or Navy personnel or equipment.

“It’s inappropriate for us to speculate on force-structure changes to basing or any other future development,” USFK spokesman Col. Franklin Childress said.

Bell also addressed a problem affecting U.S. combat aircrews.

While U.S. and South Korean warplanes and precision aerial munitions are “the most sophisticated … in the history of warfare,” he said, U.S. troops have lacked adequate access to modern aerial ranges in South Korea since the Kooni Range Complex was closed in August 2005.

“It is essential that American combat jet crews have access to an appropriate and effective modern air-to-ground range here in Korea,” he said. Otherwise, he said, “The United States will be forced to pursue other approaches to ensure American aircrews can perform their missions in combat.”

Lt. Col. Pak Yang-ok, a South Korean defense ministry spokesman, would say on Friday only that “both nations are closely consulting over the matters.”

Bell stressed that while the nations look toward the alliance’s future, they do so “against the backdrop of the North Korean threat, which, as we were all reminded last week, remains a very unpredictable and lethal threat to your security and to world peace.”

Much attention was focused on the long-range Taepodong-2 missile’s failure, Bell said, but as a military commander, “I would offer that there is another ominous point that needs attention.

“North Korea was able to launch a salvo of six Scud and Nodong missiles of varying types and capabilities, by far the largest number of theater ballistic missiles ever launched by the North in a single day,” he said. “By all accounts, all six of these missiles worked, a few were fired at night — again, another first by the North Koreans — and they appeared to be accurate, validating the readiness of the North’s significant theater missile ballistic capability.”

He said the launches marked the first time North Korea has fired Scuds or Nodongs in 13 years and that officials believe the North has more than 800 such missiles in its inventory.

“I hope these missile launches have served to put the ROK-U.S. alliance into the right perspective,” he said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.


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