By Bruce Gagnon
South Korea and the US launched their annual Key Resolve military exercise Monday, which involves scenarios for the employment of US anti-missile assets and special warfare forces tasked with removing North Korea’s leadership in a contingency.
For the first time, the allies are expected to apply an operational guideline to use the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense [THAAD] battery during the initial phase of the computer-based drill to intercept incoming ballistic missiles from the North.
Joining the program are US special warfare forces, including the SEAL Team Six, also known as DEVGRU, which killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Their missions are expected to range from taking out North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and securing the regime’s nuclear weapons, military officials said.
Scheduled to run through March 24, the drill is expected to be the largest ever in scale, with the participation of about 300,000 troops and the deployment of US strategic assets, including F-35B stealth fighters and the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The allies have also been carrying out the Foal Eagle field training exercise since March 1.
“(The) Key Resolve exercise has been defensive in nature and provided a bedrock for the peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” JCS chairman Gen. Lee Sun-jin said during his visit Sunday to the air carrier alongside USFK commander Gen. Vincent Brooks.
“Faced with grave security concerns, the participation of the Carrier Strike Group shows that US strategic assets could be deployed at any time to the Korean Peninsula. … If North Korea makes a miscalculation and conducts a provocation, it would be met with the allies’ overwhelming response.”
Separately, the US military said it has begun the process for the permanent deployment of the Gray Eagle aircraft to its air base in Gunsan, which is forecast to enhance the allies’ strike capabilities against ground targets, military officials here said. The unmanned attack planes will be assigned to the 2nd aviation brigade under the 2nd Infantry Division.
This year’s Key Resolve drills will be based on a 2015 operational plan, OPLAN 5015, which aims to remove the North’s weapons of mass destruction and prepare the allied troops for a pre-emptive strike in the event of an imminent North Korean attack, as well as “decapitation” raids targeting the leadership.
Pyongyang lashed out at the allies for the drill yet again this year, calling it a “rehearsal for war” designed to overthrow the regime and putting its forces on high alert.
“There is no guarantee that the combined exercise will not turn into a war,” said North Korea Today, a propaganda outlet of the communist regime. “Any pre-emptive attempts will be met with prompt and ruthless nuclear attacks.”
Last Friday, 38 North, a North Korea-specialized website run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said the communist state may be preparing for a sixth nuclear test that could have the largest explosive power. It cited satellite imagery that shows tunnel excavations near the Pyunge-ri test site, where the North has previously conducted underground detonations.Φ
Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America’s declining empire.