U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp

U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp ()

SEOUL — After two weeks of what he called "very, very successful" war games, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp said Friday that South Korea should be ready by April 17, 2012, to direct a war against North Korea should hostilities erupt.

The date is when South Korea is scheduled to assume control of all U.N. military forces in the country during a war, including the 28,000-strong U.S. military presence.

"We still have a ways to go — we completely realize that — but we have two and a half years to get it right," Sharp said Friday, a day after the end of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise. About 10,000 U.S. troops and 55,000 South Korean troops participated in the annual exercise, held Aug. 17-27.

This year’s UFG was the second of four exercises that will test South Korea’s ability to lead troops during war before the transfer of operational control, often referred to as OPCON transfer.

During the exercise, the militaries rehearsed an "all-out" North Korean attack on the South — "how we would stop them before they go to Seoul, and how we would continue to the ultimate end state of the defeat of the North Korean military," Sharp said.

The scenarios were based on the three countries’ projected capabilities in 2012.

North Korea’s spring nuclear tests and missile launches were essentially a dress rehearsal for the exercise, he said, forcing South Korean and U.S. commanders to work more closely on sharing information, and forcing diplomats to coordinate their messages to the public and to North Korea. He said the two militaries are "miles and miles ahead of where we were last year at UFG," with some new organizations and procedures, including a combined intelligence group and a new war plan that outlines how they will operate together after 2012.

Under that plan, the U.S. will play a supporting role to South Korea, except in air power. A combined air command will be led by the U.S. 7th Air Force commander, Sharp said.

"In many cases, it’s very, very similar to what we are doing now, but with a [South Korean] lead," he said.

A priority for next year’s UFG will be to ensuring branches of each military can get the same information during a war and coordinate better with each other, he said.

The beginning of the exercise included four days of crisis management, when the countries rehearsed what they would do diplomatically during the lead-up to a war, such as whether the U.S. ambassador would decide to evacuate U.S. civilians. The scenarios they faced were updated throughout the year and were heavily influenced by North Korea’s tests in the spring and summer.

Sharp said he and Gen. Kim Tae-young, chair of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, are briefed every quarter on progress in 20 major areas related to the transition.

"Some people think that we think about OPCON transition only once a year during these UFGs," he said. "Well, in fact, we think about it and do stuff to improve and get ready for it literally every single day of the year."

In October, Sharp will provide his first annual assessment of South Korea’s preparedness at a meeting in Seoul to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and South Korean Minister of Defense Lee Saeng-hee. In early spring 2012, the two countries will hold another training exercise and Sharp will make his final recommendation on whether to proceed with the transfer.

"I’m confident we will be ready, but it’s my job to give an honest assessment to the secretary and the minister because we’ve got to be ready to go to war on the 18th of April, 2012, under the new construct," he said.

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