Inside the bunker: A look at war games that anger North Korea
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — American and South Korean soldiers sat behind rows of computers instead of trenches, while generals met in the “war room” across the hall.
For about two weeks every summer, the allies huddle in bunkers on military bases to perfect their skills with computerized war games known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.
The command-post exercise and other joint drills are always trigger points for tensions on the divided peninsula because they infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
But UFG took on new urgency this year as the communist state has stepped up its saber rattling and test-fired more than a dozen missiles, including one that flew over Japan on Tuesday.
A rare look inside the bunker that serves as ground zero for the 2nd Infantry Division at Camp Red Cloud underscores the complicated reality of training for a conflict while the threat is unfolding in real time outside.
Commander Maj. Gen. Scott McKean of the 2nd ID says he’s not focused on the “ups and downs” of the long-running standoff with the North.
He’s busy making sure the U.S. and South Korean members of the combined division are in sync and ready for a major change as they prepare to move away from the front lines to a base south of Seoul.
“The threat has evolved and so we will also evolve,” McKean said Wednesday in an interview in the “war room” in the hillside bunker, which is near a makeshift golf course. “This is what we do on a daily basis.”
“We’re doing exercises like these that help us see ourselves to make sure that we are in the best posture to deal with whatever crisis should come up,” he told Stars and Stripes.
Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which is named for a famous South Korean general and is the second of two major rounds of military exercises held each year, began on Aug. 21 and ends Thursday. Officials will conduct an after-action review on Friday.
Some 17,500 American troops, with approximately 3,000 coming from other countries, and 350,000 South Koreans, including military forces and government officials, participated in the games.
The number of U.S. servicemembers involved was lower than the 25,000 who joined last year, but military officials insisted that was because of training priorities and not an effort to scale them back.
The exercise raised already-high tensions as the North makes surprising progress in its effort to develop a nuclear-tipped missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
The North fired a missile over Japan on Tuesday and said that was a “muscle-flexing” measure against the drills. Leader Kim Jong Un also renewed a warning that his military may lob rockets into the ocean near the U.S. territory of Guam.
The 2nd ID is the U.S. military’s main ground combat force that has manned the area near the heavily fortified border since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
It became the only combined U.S.-South Korean division in 2015, incorporating South Korean officers in a bid to streamline decision-making and communications.
McKean said the drills are an opportunity to improve coordination.
“Where do we have gaps in our processes … how do we present our higher commands an understanding of what’s going on the way we see it?” he said.
“Most of our operations are within the (South Korean) army … and so if we don’t understand the differences of our doctrine then we may misunderstand some of the missions that come to us.”
His South Korean deputy, Brig. Gen. Kim Tae-up, said his troops learn from the extensive U.S. experience in active war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan while the Americans benefit from the local knowledge and connections.
“We know the ROK divisions and the battlefield. We know the key leaders,” he said, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name the Republic of Korea.
He said the North Korean missile that flew over Japan on Tuesday as the exercise was underway only served as more motivation.
“We cannot underestimate the North Korean threat. They are very aggressive,” he said. So we have to prepare. We have to maintain posture to fight tonight.”
Planning missions also will become more complicated as the division is in the process of moving south to an expanded Camp Humphreys as part of a long-delayed relocation of the bulk of U.S. forces according to a 2004 agreement.
Rotational units already have made the move, and the 2nd ID headquarters is expected to follow next summer.
Troops will now need to organize logistics and movements to travel from Humphreys to training ranges that will remain in operation near the border.
“That even adds more of a priority to look at the planning assumptions and challenge those to make sure they’re still valid,” McKean said.
“We can’t drive our tanks all the way up. … I don’t know how we’d get through Seoul traffic anyway,” he jokingly said.
The scenarios being played out in the simulations are classified and soldiers turn off their screens before anybody without clearance enters the operations room.
But operation leaders said the exercise is designed to integrate various methods of work between the allies and to bring people up to speed amid high turnover.
“Any time the team changes obviously they have to get up to speed quickly, understand their new environment,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Mungie, a San Diego native.
“A unique aspect of the Korean theater is that you’re not simply training your formation to be ready, you have to be ready all the time because the real world events occur on a very regular basis,” he added.