Unanswered Questions Cast Doubt on Military Coordination

      April 08, 2010 12:46

      A fact-finding committee of civilian experts and military officers probing the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan on Wednesday confirmed the disaster occurred at 9:22 p.m. on March 26. At 10:40 p.m., an hour and 18 minutes after the 1,200 ton warship split in half and began to sink, South Korean KF-16 fighter jets lifted off from an Air Force base in South Chungcheong Province. This gap in time has triggered suspicions that there may have been some serious problems in the Navy and Air Force launching a coordinated mission to help the Cheonan. There are also suspicions that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose task is to ensure cooperation between the Army, Navy and Air Force, may have been caught off guard.

      According to the military, the Second Naval Command was notified of the sinking of the Cheonan at 9:28 p.m., exactly six minutes after it happened. The command ordered the nearest warship -- the Sokcho -- to the scene and requested assistance from maritime police at 9:32 p.m. And at 9:40 p.m., the highest alert level was issued for the West Sea area, which means all Navy vessels must prepare for battle, while Air Force fighter pilots must sit in their cockpits and await launch orders. But it was more than an hour after the Cheonan began to sink that fighter planes lifted off.

      The situation at the maritime border with North Korea was extremely tense when the Cheonan began sinking. At 11:00 p.m., the warship Sokcho fired 76 mm cannon for five minutes at an unidentified target that was heading quickly to North Korea. The military said it appeared to be "a flock of birds." The commander of naval operations bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his direct superior, and phoned Defense Minister Kim Tae-young for authorization for the Sokcho to fire on the target. "The head of the JCS was probably out of reach since he was on a train heading back to Seoul after attending a debate outside the capital," Kim said.

      The JCS said its chairman, Lee Sang-eui, was briefed on the situation aboard the train and took "all necessary measures." Really? Lee had attended a debate on combined South Korea-U.S. military strategy in Daejeon, which included high-raking officials from the Pentagon. He boarded a KTX bullet train at 9:27 p.m. after dinner with U.S. military officers and arrived in Seoul at 10:31 p.m. In the end, the KF-16 fighter planes were dispatched 78 minutes after the Cheonan began to sink, and the authorization for the Sokcho to fire was given by the defense minister rather than by Lee.

      The investigation of the shipwreck must thoroughly look into the initial steps the South Korean military took just after it happened and discover how much coordination took place between the Army, Navy and Air Force. That is the best way to sharpen South Korea's military response in case a similar incident takes place again.

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