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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The top U.S. military commander on the peninsula said U.S. and South Korean officials hope to have a “road map” toward independent military commands here completed by October.

U.S. Army Gen. B.B. Bell, who heads the Combined Forces, U.S. Forces Korea and United Nations commands, said he hopes to have a macro-level road map approved at an October security consultative meeting in Washington, D.C.

“So we’re conducting a range of meetings … in hopes of laying out these road maps,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes last week. “I don’t know if we’ll make it … but we’re working on it.”

Under current agreements, Bell directs U.S. and South Korean combat operations in time of war. In October 2005, South Korea said it wanted wartime operational command of its own forces, launching current studies.

The difficulty is neither drafting a plan nor saying that the nations have agreed to a deadline for setting up independent commands, Bell said. Rather, what’s more difficult, he said, is enacting the plan and meeting the deadline.

He told the Korean National Assembly’s Security Forum on July 13 that officials are considering creating two independent commands that would take advantage of U.S. air and naval powers but place U.S. Forces Korea in a supporting role.

Asked whether the goal of restructuring implied fewer ground soldiers — or additional Air Force or Navy assets on the peninsula — Bell said, “Not at all. We’re not anywhere near that kind of level of fidelity.”

He said his emphasis in the speech on air and naval strengths reflected the reality of U.S. forces on the peninsula, that “quite frankly, today, our most competent, immediate capability is air and naval.”

He said South Korea’s army has more than 500,000 active troops; North Korea’s, 600,000 to 700,000.

“The American Army in Korea, what is it? Ten thousand. … The total number of U.S. ground forces in this theater is a little speck compared to the big armies that are facing each other,” Bell said.

He said that realistically, U.S. forces “have today an air- and naval-centric capability. It’s very powerful, it is very good, it’s very reliable and it is capable of … bringing enormous military power to bear very quickly.”

A key question, he said, is determining how U.S. forces can support an independent South Korean command that would “bear the principal war-fighting burden.”

“We’re not even close to defining all that,” he said.

What is clear, Bell said, is that whatever final shape the U.S.-South Korean military alliance takes, it must deter North Korean aggression and, should that fail, defeat any attack on South Korea.

Could South Korea and the United States go to independent military commands today?

“The biggest issue today,” Bell said, is that for South Korea to assume independent control, both nations must have independent, joint war-fighting command-and-control capability.

“We have a … combined war-fighting headquarters,” Bell said. “We sit next to each other.”

“You wouldn’t want to take apart CFC, or our other combined constructs, until you have prepared the independent national joint-force war-fighting headquarters for both nations,” he said.

Need for air-to-ground range

In the Security Forum speech, Bell also stressed the need for a modern air-to-ground training range. He said that lacking such a range in South Korea, he’d “be forced to pursue other approaches” to train U.S. crews.

Asked whether “other approaches” meant moving Air Force crews out of South Korea either temporarily or permanently, Bell declined to provide specifics.

A range requires electronic devices to rate aircrews, Bell said. “You’re not just looking for a splash of water or a big field of dirt somewhere. You’re looking … to score the capabilities of these aircrews.”

Bell said officials believed they’d have that type of range soon after South Korea closed the Kooni Range Complex in August 2005. He said he thought it appropriate to remind the National Assembly of this and to emphasize how important he considers it.

“One thing is for sure,” Bell said. “We are not going to allow American aircrews to go into a war, or to propose that they can deter a war, unless they’re trained and ready.”

“If I can’t get access to an air-to-ground range, I’m going to have to do something.”

North Korea missile threat

When North Korea test-fired seven missiles earlier this month, public attention seemed to focus on the single long-range intercontinental Taepodong-2 missile’s failure.

“Obviously I’m not too worried about Taepodongs landing around here,” he said. “I’m worried about short-range missiles … Scud and Nodong missiles that are built for theater deployment.”

Bell said a salvo of such missiles were fired and “all appeared to work pretty well. … We’ve now seen an expression of their readiness to be able to shoot those missiles relatively accurately, at night, in quick succession, effectively.

“That signals that we ought to be able to do something about that, at least in a defensive construct. If there was an argument for a more capable missile defense, they made it very effectively for us. … Until there’s a peace treaty on this peninsula, I think we should be able to defend ourselves against them.”

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