News / Asia

    Along Korea's DMZ, Lone Forward-Deployed US Division Stays Prepared

    M1-A2SEP Abrams tanks participating in a platoon qualifying exercise near the DMZ. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
    M1-A2SEP Abrams tanks participating in a platoon qualifying exercise near the DMZ. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
    At a time of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, a quartet of U.S. Army “Abrams” M1-A2SEP tanks rolls onto the frozen ground of the Rodriguez Live Fire Range near the DMZ during one of the coldest days of the winter.
     
    The tanks and their crews, from Dragon Company of the 1st Battalion’s 72nd Armor Regiment (1-72 AR), are a small but lethal component of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division stationed close to the tense border separating North and South Korea.

     
    The division has the unenviable task of holding off - until reinforcements arrive - a much larger enemy force, should there be an invasion similar to the one that began the Korean War in 1950.
     
    The tankers' advanced qualification exercise (known as a gunnery table XII) not only involves the crews inside the 70-ton 1,500-horsepower vehicles, but 400 other support personnel scattered across the range, including those in an observation tower and a large heated tent that serves as the battalion tactical operations center.  
     
    Inside the tent, a situation report arrives from a tank platoon that they have completed movement from one map reference to another.
     
    “Moving forward phase line blue, phase line crimson,” shouts a soldier.
     
    “Phase line blue, phase line crimson!” echoes a chorus of other uniformed personnel to ensure everyone in the center is aware of the location of the units.   
     
    "Currently the second platoon from our Dragon Company, an armored company, has occupied the range and is conducting their engagement area development and is going to move down the lane to engage enemy targets and destroy them," explains Capt. Joshua Jones, an assistant operations officer with the 1-72 AR.

    Minutes later huge booms resonate across the range. The Abrams are firing their 120 millimeter cannons. The explosions can also be faintly heard by the North Korean military just a dozen kilometers away.
     
    The big rounds are also accompanied by bursts from the tanks' 50 caliber heavy and 7.62 millimeter coaxial machine guns.
     
    Keeping watch over key route to Seoul
     
    Tanks of Dragon Company, 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment, rolling on the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex near Pocheon, South Korea. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)Tanks of Dragon Company, 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment, rolling on the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex near Pocheon, South Korea. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
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    Tanks of Dragon Company, 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment, rolling on the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex near Pocheon, South Korea. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
    Tanks of Dragon Company, 1st Battalion, 72nd Armor Regiment, rolling on the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex near Pocheon, South Korea. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
    These tanks, with a top speed of 68 kilometers per hour, are in the range of North Korean artillery.
     
    Should there be an enemy invasion, the Abrams of Dragon Company, presumably at that point under heavy fire, would stand between one of the largest armies in the world and some 25 million civilians in the Seoul metropolitan area, just 30 kilometers to the south.
     
    These qualification trainings are meant to ensure that the North Koreans would face some of the U.S. Army's highest-rated tank crews.
     
    They are being graded on “the time it takes to acquire the target, the time to shoot the target and then accuracy,” explains battalion commander Lt. Col. Matthew Holly. “For tanks it's pretty easy. They either fire and hit it and it goes down or they missed, in which case they have to re-fire. And that re-fire will subtract points away from the total score."
     
    The platoon fires 18 rounds and hits all 18 targets - an infrequent occurrence - earning praise from the 2nd Infantry Division's commander, Major General Edward Cardon.
     
    "Out here on these tank ranges when you saw the way that these tankers were shooting that's exactly the kind of formations that we need that are a strong, credible deterrent, “ Cardon says during a VOA interview. “I don't know what the North Koreans will do. But I do know one thing. When we're asked to do something, I want to make sure we can deliver and deliver with the expectation that American fighting forces are known for."
     
    Unique division with a long history in Korea
     
    The 2nd Infantry is one of the U.S. Army's most decorated divisions, having engaged in four wars, going back to World War I.
     
    It was the first unit to reach the Korean peninsula directly from the United States after the North Koreans crossed into the South on June 25, 1950, sparking three years of devastating combat that ended in a stalemate.
     
    The 2nd Infantry has been patrolling close to the DMZ since 1965, as the decades continue to roll by with the two Koreas remaining divided and technically still in a state of war.  
     
    It is the Army's only remaining forward-deployed division and unlike any other U.S. Army division, the 2nd Infantry is composed partly of foreign soldiers.  
     
    "When you have blood and treasure of the United States committed with the blood and treasure of (South) Korea, together that is a powerful symbol of unity that, I think, has helped the deterrence and the stability of this region of the world for decades," says Maj. Gen. Cardon.
     
    Currently about 1,000 South Korean troops serve in the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division. That is a small fraction of the half million total active personnel in the South Korean military.
     
    Collaboration key to South Korean security
     
    The commander of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, speaking to some of his soldiers. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)The commander of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, speaking to some of his soldiers. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)
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    The commander of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, speaking to some of his soldiers. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)
    The commander of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, speaking to some of his soldiers. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)
    Senior security strategy researcher Hong Hyun-ik, at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, says despite the huge economic disparity between the two Koreas, the South likely would not be able to repel the North without such American units as the 2nd Infantry Division.
     
    Hong contends it would be relative easy for Seoul to be captured by the North should Pyongyang again start a war. Taking this into consideration, he explains, even though South Korea “desires to have an independent defense posture it knows it must rely on U.S. forces here to have a sufficient deterrence.”
     
    Unlike the draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no such plans in South Korea.
     
    But change is looming. Wartime operational control of all forces here is to shift from the U.S. military to South Korea by December, 2015.
     
    In the meantime, 2nd Infantry has been receiving additional modernized heavy combat equipment and increasing combined training with South Korean forces.

    • U.S. 2nd Infantry Division soldiers stand during a ceremony on a sunny but frigid day with the temperature at -10ºC, Pocheon, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)
    • The commander of the 2nd Infantry, Major General Edward Cardon, in a helicopter en route to a firing range near the DMZ, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)
    • The commander of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, speaking to some of his soldiers, Pocheon, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)
    • Four US Army Abrams tanks fire at targets on the Rodriguez Digital Multi-Purpose Range Complex, 12 kilometers south of the DMZ, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)
    • M1-A2SEP Abrams tanks participating in a platoon qualifying exercise near the DMZ. (Photo: VOA / Steve Herman)
    • Soldiers in the Battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC), where they are receiving situation reports from their tank companies, Pocheon, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)
    • The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division includes members of the South Korean army (known as KATUSAs) who live, work, sleep, eat and train alongside their American counterparts, Pocheon, South Korea, January 25, 2013. (S. Herman/VOA)

    Additional reporting from Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul bureau

    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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    Comments
         
    by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
    January 29, 2013 5:02 PM
    It is good to see the US still involved in Korea; the question that SKorea needs to address is- how come North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world, can sustain a formidable military force? while South Korea continues to ride on the back of US forces, and essentially on the back of US taxpayers; It does not really make sense. South Korea is a rich, technologically developed country, with a very well educated population; they can do the sums as to what it will take to ensure they can fully deter/respond to a North Korean assault. When the UN mandated force, back in 1953/54, to defend SK came about, South Korea was a poor, and technologically primitive country, not today, I see no great committment, on SK's, gvmt to ensure they build and sustain a full self defence capability; clearly that needs to change. Essentially the overall deterrent capability of Western backed nations is rapidly decreasing, vis a vis those that oppose the Western block, and it is exactly because to many expect the US, with its poor economy, to pick up their slack defence calculations/ways like South Korea.

    by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
    January 28, 2013 4:41 PM
    The operational command of the combined forces of South Korea and the US is expected to be handed over to South Korea in 2015. At present the US military bases are primarily locateded in the northern part of the country and the South Korean bases in the south of the country. There is a tactical switch of the US forces to southern military bases and the South Korean forces towards the border with North Korea. It is a belated encouraging sign in preparation for handing over the operational responsibility for the defense of South Korea by the South Koreans.

    South Korea is a major economic power in the Pacific Rim. Still there is no end in sight for the withdrawal of the US military from South Korea.Why it took only four years to transfer the responsibility of defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans? Afghanistan is a poor country. Is the US prematurely abandoning Afghanistan by the complete withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2014 while thousands of US forces are indefinitely stationed in South Korea even after 65 years?

    The military situation in Afghanistan and South Korea are different. The US military in Afghanistan was for the internal security of the country where as the US military in South Korea was because of external threats. The US is not involved in the internal security in South Korea.

    by: thatguy96
    January 28, 2013 1:21 PM
    The continued presence of American forces forward deployed in Korea is an important thing to highlight, but this article leaves out the important detail that this presence has been significantly scaled back over the last decade. While the 2nd Infantry Division headquarters remains based in Korea, along with one of its brigade combat teams, its aviation brigade, and an aligned fires (field artillery) brigade, the bulk of the Division has been relocated to Washington state.

    The Division's other three brigade combat teams are based there, and have been deployed over the years to support other missions, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighth US Army in Korea, the last tactical field army in the Army's force structure, is designed to accommodate a large, rapid build-up of forces in the event of open conflict on the peninsula, but actual forward deployed posture is much smaller than it once was.

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