The Pentagon is planning to scale back annual military exercises in South Korea designed to simulate war on the Korean peninsula. The annual Foal Eagle exercise will be reduced “to a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy,” according to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The joint U.S and South Korean exercise is held every year in the spring but is opposed by North Korea, which views it as two enemies practicing to invade and topple its government.
is described by the Department of Defense as a “series of joint and combined ground, air, naval and special operations field exercises” meant to simulate a response to a hypothetical North Korean attack. The exercise typically lasts around two months and involves U.S. forces regularly stationed in South Korea and forces brought into the country for the duration of the exercise, particularly air and naval forces.
The Pentagon maintains 28,500 troops across South Korea. The U.S. Army regularly rotates a heavy brigade combat team of about 5,000 troops armed with M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2A3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles on yearlong tours in-country and maintains a permanent garrison of heavy artillery, Patriot surface-to-air missiles, and the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system. The U.S. Air Force bases three squadrons of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters and one squadron of A-10 Warthog ground attack jets at Kunsan and Osan Air Bases.
Typically, Foal Eagle sees U.S. forces in South Korea reinforced by fighter jets and bombers from the continental United States and ships and naval aviation from the Japan-based 7th Fleet and U.S.-based naval forces. The naval flotilla includes several thousand U.S. Marines deployed on amphibious vessels capable of landing behind enemy lines. U.S. Army Special Forces from Okinawa and Washington also train to deploy to and operate from South Korea against wartime targets.
North Korea objects to the exercises, at the minimum believing the exercises threaten its ability to invade South Korea and rehearse a regime-change invasion. Scaling back the exercises is an attempt at compromise, maintaining the skill sets to rapidly reinforce the Korean peninsula while trying not to increase tension during a time of an unprecedented warming of relations between North and South Korea. The two countries have undertaken a number of steps designed to reduce hostility, including disarming guards at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas and demolishing a number of along the border.