As South Korea’s new COVID-19 cases spike to levels not seen in five months, the United States and South Korea are learning a great deal about the trade-offs and risks associated with maintaining military readiness during the pandemic. Earlier this spring, the two countries canceled a scheduled exercise due to the coronavirus. Now they are staging a similar computer-simulated exercise, scaled down in both size and scope, to maintain readiness.

The threat from North Korea has not abated—a fact North Korea pointedly reminded the international community of when it blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in June. As long as the North Korean threat remains, a strong U.S.–South Korea defense posture to deter aggression and defend the peninsula remains necessary. Pandemic or not, combined military exercises play an important role in making sure that the United States and South Korea are prepared for such scenarios. They allow the allies to rehearse their response, should tension on the peninsula escalate to the point of war.

Health Risks Limit the Size and Scope of Military Exercises

Yet staging an exercise during a pandemic could have the unintended effect of actually impeding readiness. An armed force that is sick or forced into quarantine is not a ready force.

Kathryn Botto
Kathryn Botto was a senior research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Asian security issues, with particular emphasis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. defense policy towards East Asia.
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During a computer-simulated military exercise, personnel must work indoors, in close quarters. These exercises are not small endeavors. The predecessor to this summer’s exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, was also a computer-simulated exercise. It involved some 50,000 South Korean and 17,500 U.S. service members in 2017. Ulchi Freedom Guardian and other major U.S.–South Korea exercises were scaled back and renamed after a surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2018 U.S.–North Korea summit in Singapore.

The exact size of military exercises since then is unclear, but they still involve thousands of troops. Without proper safety measures, these indoor spaces, into which many people are crammed for hours at a time, are exactly the kind of environment experts recommend avoiding during the pandemic. The United States and South Korea are taking measures to keep participants safe, but the spread of COVID-19 has proved difficult to control even with strict containment measures, and the risk remains.

Source: U.S. Air Force photo illustration

South Korea has famously done an exceptional job in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but it experienced a sudden resurgence of cases over the past week. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that South Korea appears to be in the “early stage of large-scale community outbreaks.” The South Korean military isn’t immune to the spread—after a South Korean Army officer who would have taken part tested positive for the virus, the exercise was delayed by two days, beginning on August 18 rather than August 16.

U.S. Domestic Cases Force Changes in Military Training Abroad

While the domestic spread of the coronavirus in South Korea poses a risk, the exceptionally wide spread of the virus in the United States has forced major adjustments to the exercise as well. The United States Forces Korea (USFK) has gone to great lengths to mitigate the spread of the virus, requiring service members to work from home where possible and quarantine. USFK has not had a domestic case of COVID-19 since mid-April. That said, United States has decidedly more COVID-19 cases than any country, and new USFK affiliates arriving in South Korea from the United States are testing positive nearly every day. In the month of July, USFK reported 187 cases among new arrivals.

All new USFK arrivals are tested for COVID-19, quarantined for two weeks, and tested again before leaving quarantine. This has efficiently prevented community spread. But the rate of infection among new arrivals posed a problem for the exercise. Under normal circumstances, military exercises rely partly, and often quite heavily, on augmentation forces—troops shuttled from the United States to take part. In 2017, Ulchi Freedom Guardian involved 3,000 augmentees. The risk of viral spread, and the associated cost of quarantining every augmentee for two weeks, made including augmentation forces untenable during this exercise.

The coronavirus not only poses a threat to readiness, given the danger of infecting service members, it also poses a political risk to the alliance. The Trump administration has not hesitated to play the blame game when it comes to the virus’s spread, and South Korea’s advanced contract tracing makes it easy to find the epicenter of an outbreak. If the exercise led to more infections, it could exacerbate tension in an alliance already fraught with conflict over negotiations about sharing the burden of defense costs and recent threats by Trump to withdraw troops from South Korea. It could also lead the South Korean public to lose trust in their government’s handling of the pandemic, and to be more likely to take a negative view of the alliance.

Political Ramifications for Moon

The reduction in scale, combined with the cancelation of a similar exercise earlier this year due to the pandemic, have also forced the allies to limit the scope of the exercise. This could be a major setback for one of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s central policy priorities—the transfer of wartime operational control back to South Korea.

The allies had originally planned to conduct a test of South Korea’s Full Operational Capability (FOC), a major benchmark in the operational control transfer process, but had to postpone it to a later date. The two allies also have certain key training objectives to accomplish every year. With the spring exercise canceled, they were behind on these training objectives and needed to make up ground to meet them. Under normal circumstances, they could meet training objectives and conduct the test at the same time. But the small scale, lack of augmentation forces, and missed training in the spring forced a difficult decision to limit the scope of the exercise and focus on readiness, at the expense of the now-postponed FOC test.

While this is a blow to Moon’s agenda, it was a necessary and pragmatic decision that may actually help Moon avoid further obstacles to accomplishing this goal down the line. Had the test occurred under these unusual conditions with a significantly scaled-down and limited exercise, its legitimacy could be called into question by Moon’s opponents. They contend that he is trying to push the transfer through too quickly for political reasons, rather than with consideration for South Korea’s capabilities and preparedness. Though postponing the FOC test is a setback for Moon’s timeline, it will help ensure the transfer process is seen as legitimate down the line.

At the end of the day, the threat from North Korea remains, and the show must go on. The United States and South Korea can’t risk the loss in military readiness when a threat from North Korea exists, especially after canceling another exercise this spring, even with the associated risks of the virus. In order to ensure the exercise proceeds as safely as possible, the two countries have made major trade-offs in terms of scale, scope, timing, and logistics. Should the exercise proceed safely, the United States and South Korea will be setting a standard for conducting multinational exercises and maintaining military readiness under unprecedented circumstances.