SEOUL, South Korea -- The increasing threat from North Korea means that decisions about moving U.S. forces away from the front lines, and transferring operational control to the South, must be driven by conditions -- not timelines -- the U.S. Eighth Army commander said.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal said the much-delayed relocation of the bulk of U.S. forces in Korea to regional hubs south of Seoul is finally on track, with most major units expected to be in place by early 2018.
But the 210th Field Artillery Brigade will remain near the heavily militarized border with North Korea for the foreseeable future. The Combined Forces Command and USFK headquarters also will maintain a residual force at the Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison in Seoul.
"Right now, it's conditions-based moves," Vandal said in an interview Thursday with Stars and Stripes at his office at the military's headquarters in Yongsan. "That is because of the criticality of having the counter-fire capabilities to the north."
Vandal, who is also the chief of staff for USFK and the Combined Forces Command, said the artillery brigade and supporting forces will remain at Camp Casey at least until 2020, according to an agreement with the South Korean government. But the trigger for the move will rely on the ability of the South Korean military to fully take over the positions.
That would include having and being able to operate a comparable multiple-launch rocket system capable of defending against the North's massive arsenal.
Pyongyang has raised the stakes this year by conducting two nuclear tests and stepping up the pace of its missile launches as the Communist country marches toward its stated goal of developing an nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland.
The advances prompted South Korea to agree to allow the U.S. to deploy a high-altitude missile defense system known as THAAD.
The military has missed many deadlines and been forced to scale back efforts to relocate most U.S. troops to regional hubs south of Seoul. It also has put on hold plans to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea, originally scheduled for 2012, then 2015.
Under the current arrangement, the South is in charge of its own troops during peacetime, but U.S. commanders would take charge of all combined forces if war breaks out with North Korea.
Vandal said USFK has been working with South Korea's military to develop its core capabilities so it could be fully responsible for its own security.
"I would anticipate sometime in 2025 time frame, but again we're not tied to a specific time; we're tied to the conditions," he said.
He said the $10.7 billion program to expand Camp Humphreys to accommodate an eventual population of 42,000 is finally shifting from the construction phase to the move phase, pointing out that the Republic of Korea is covering 92 percent of the cost.
He said the Eighth Army headquarters will be in place by next July and the 2nd Infantry Division by January 2018. The 6th Medical Brigade also will move next summer, he said.
He also stressed that even when the move is completed, the U.S. military will maintain formidable capabilities on the divided peninsula, which technically remains at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers stationed in the South.
"There will still be the capability here on the peninsula, but not specifically for the initial portion of the long-range artillery attack that could occur," he said.
Vandal also said the introduction of rotational forces has improved readiness and cohesion by reducing the turbulence from constant turnover of personnel. U.S. soldiers usually serve one- to two-year tours in South Korea. Under the rotational plan, units train and deploy together for nine-month stints.
The Army deactivated the 1st "Iron" Brigade Combat Team last year, which had been in South Korea since 1965, and replaced it with rotations from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "We've increased the number of rotational forces fairly significantly," Vandal said. Other rotational units include a multiple-launch rocket system battalion, an engineering battalion and an aerial squadron that will replace its outgoing fleet of OH-58 Kiowa Warriors with Apache attack helicopters next year.
The 2nd Infantry Division was also transformed into a combined U.S.-South Korean division.
Vandal acknowledged rotations take a toll on the troops because they aren't able to bring their families with them, but he said the urgency of the mission keeps them focused.
"At the end of the day, they want to deploy. They want to go overseas, they want to train, they want to have a sense of purpose and that's what they have in Korea," he said. "They understand that, at any minute, we could be called to go to war."
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