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ROK reform keys on force development, troop reconfiguration

Top Stories | Apr 5, 2020:

Felix Kim

The Republic of Korea’s (ROK’s) defense modernization program is entering its second year with a focus on three key goals — addressing force development, adjusting the personnel structure and reconfiguring individual units.

Faced with an evolving threat landscape and a shifting labor demographic, the ROK’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) in early 2019 began implementing a package of modernization and structural upgrades known as Defense Reform 2.0. One year into the implementation, the MND assembled a team of experts to review the progress made so far.

MND’s 2020 Defense Reform Advisory Committee met in Seoul, South Korea, on February 20, 2020. The committee consisted of ministry officials and outside advisors to review results and discuss directions for 2020, the MND stated in a news release.

The ministry launched its plan to reform the military into a “technology-intensive military structure” to offset decreasing troop numbers, the ministry explained. Transforming practices within the defense sector has  also been central to Defense Reform 2.0, it added, summarizing the effort as a process toward “peace, innovation, fairness and inclusion.” Going forward, the government will pursue reforms such as enactment and amendment of laws and regulations to “maintain the driving force” for defense reform.

The ROK military faces external and internal challenges, said Kim Jae Yeop, senior researcher at South Korea’s Pacific Rim Institute for Strategic Studies. Externally, Seoul must reckon with Pyongyang’s ongoing development of “new sophisticated weapon systems, which can complicate and disrupt defense” as well as potential threats from the People’s Republic of China. Internally, it must contend with a fighting force that will scale down from the current 590,000 troops to 500,000 by 2022.

Kim described three areas of reform the ministry will tackle in the coming years.

The first is force development, which involves the introduction of new defense systems, Kim said, such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, long-range firepower, land-naval-air mobility and missile defense. These systems emphasize the use of robotics and artificial intelligence, referred to collectively as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (Pictured: Republic of Korea Navy special forces participate in a military exercise on the Dokdo islands.)

“To support these procurements,” he explained, “Seoul has been ambitiously increasing its defense spending.” It has also introduced an emphasis on transparency and accountability in the procurement process, he added.

In the second area, manpower structure, the goal is to increase the proportion of officers and noncommissioned officers to 40% of the total Armed Forces personnel, up from the current 34%, as the number of conscripts declines. Civilians also will play a bigger role by filling positions in military branches and departments historically filled by military officers, he said.

The third area, unit restructuring, will reconfigure how troops are organized, Kim explained, particularly in the Army, as another measure to deal with head count reduction.

“For example, division-level units are being disbanded and reorganized into a number of new brigade-level units, including armor and mechanized units,” he said. “Last year, the Korean Army merged its two field Army commands into single land operations command.”

Defense Reform 2.0, Kim concluded, “aims to maintain defense posture with fewer troops but more sophisticated weapon systems, more qualified manpower and more agile unit structure.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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