Seoul's Defense Reforms Slash Ground Troops

  • By Jun Hyun-suk

    July 30, 2018 12:56

    The Defense Ministry will slash 118,000 ground troops and shorten military service by two to three months as well as drastically slimming down the military's top-heavy command structure.

    The defense reform plans announced last Friday and now approved by President Moon Jae-in also discard a two-week scenario to seize the North Korean capital in case of a war.

    The plans envisage reducing ground troops, slimming the command structure by getting rid of some 18 percent of idle generals and shortening mandatory military service from 21 months to 18 by the end of 2021.

    The number of Army divisions will be cut from the current 39 to 33, while frontline divisions will be slashed from 11 to nine, which means that each division will have to defend 1.2 times more of the frontline. Standing forces will shrink from the current 618,000 to 500,000 by 2022, only about 39 percent of North Korea's 1.28 million. But troop reductions will occur only in the Army, which plays a smaller role in modern warfare than it used to, from the current 483,000 to 365,000.

    "The ministry plans to make up for the troop reduction by reinforcing unmanned surveillance, including dronebots and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, and augmenting firepower," an Army officer said.

    But conservatives are up in metaphorical arms because they fear that the cuts will weaken South Korea's military strength before there is any good reason to believe in permanent peace with North Korea.

    "The reform plans do not reflect either the current security situation or suggestions from field military units," one disgruntled officer said.

    By some estimates, South Korea already suffers a shortage of ground troops needed to stabilize North Korea if the regime were to collapse. "Assuming that collapse occurs in a relatively benign manner, military missions to stabilize North Korea could require 260,000 to 400,000 troops," the Rand Corporation speculated recently.

    And Shin Jong-woo of the Korea Defense and Security Forum said, "It's ground troops that will seize the hill, no matter how advanced state-of-the-art weapons are. The government should have carried out troop reductions more prudently in line with North Korean arms reductions."

    The ministry vowed to make up for any shortfall with more state-of-the-art equipment and by recruiting more mercenaries. But while the troop reductions and shorter conscription are already enshrined in the plans, defense acquisition and recruitment of paid officers are not.

    Shin Won-sik, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "This is a risky experiment in defense that puts national security at stake."

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