Opportunities for Dynamic Force Employment in East Asia

The USS Harry S. Truman.

The United States is at a crossroads with North Korea. It can continue efforts to reduce tensions, support direct talks on denuclearization, normalize relations, and end the Korean War, or it can resume a more confrontational posture with large shows of force and less or limited diplomatic engagement. President Trump seems intent on pursuing reconciliation and has ordered the armed forces to alter the scale and content of joint military exercises to reduce tensions and support diplomacy. While this policy has raised apprehension about force readiness, concerns can be mitigated by adopting a more flexible, dynamic posture in the region called Dynamic Force Employment (DFE). By altering routine exercises and shifting assets normally devoted to deterring or pressuring North Korea, the US can send conciliatory signals to North Korea while maintaining and possibly improving its deterrence capabilities against all regional threats.

Drills and Diplomacy

The US has conducted large-scale annual exercises with ROK forces since at least 1961 to maintain readiness for the possible renewal of the Korean War. “Readiness” involves meeting the substantial logistical and operational demands of rotational troop deployments, including the integration of new units and equipment, maintaining combat proficiency and interoperability, and preparing US and ROK forces to “fight tonight” if necessary. Routine deployments have thus been combined with combat training. However, in addition to their primary purpose of maintaining and improving force readiness, exercises often serve a political or “diplomatic” function, bolstering the US-ROK negotiating positions with demonstrations of resolve and military power. When the US wishes to apply pressure or convey its disapproval of North Korea’s behavior, exercises can be enlarged to include more forces or designed with more offensive assets like submarines and long-range bombers. When the US wishes to reduce tensions to create a more favorable political climate for direct negotiations, exercises can be reduced or reconfigured to make them less threatening to North Korea.

Last June, after a historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, President Trump announced that US-ROK joint military exercises would be suspended during negotiations with North Korea. He explained this decision as an effort to both reduce costs and create conditions more suitable for diplomacy with North Korea, which routinely accuses the US of using drills to prepare for an invasion. Trump told reporters that “Under the circumstances that we’re negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal I think it’s inappropriate to have war games…” Since then, the administration has repeatedly signaled that this conciliatory gesture is conditioned on the progress of negotiations, and that large-scale joint exercises could be resumed at any time.

The decision to alter the timing, size or content of joint exercises for diplomatic purposes has strong historical precedent. For example, between 1992-1994, the US successfully leveraged offers to cancel Exercise Team Spirit to help bring about the Agreed Framework. Efforts at the negotiating table were supported through close and thoughtful coordination of the diplomatic and military levers of national power.

In 2016 and 2017, in contrast, the US engaged in a concerted effort to exert “maximum pressure” on the DPRK. This included broadening the scope of sanctions against North Korea, as well as, increasing the size of exercises in 2016, including plans for decapitation operations against North Korea (“OPLAN 5015”), deploying the terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile defense system as part of Foal Eagle 2017, conducting several live-fire long-range bombing exercises near the DMZ throughout the year, and deploying three carrier groups to the area in November 2017. The North Koreans kept pace with provocative nuclear tests in January and September 2016 and again in September 2017, as well as numerous ballistic missile tests, including three intercontinental ballistic missile tests, in violation of UN sanctions. Following the crescendo of Vigilant Ace in December 2017, involving F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters in “enemy infiltration and precision strike drills,” the North’s “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country” accused the US of pushing the situation “to the brink of nuclear war.” In early 2018, South Korea asked the US to relieve some of the pressure by delaying Foal Eagle until after the Pyeongchang Olympics at first and eventually after the first Inter-Korean Summit between ROK President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, which created the diplomatic opening for the Trump-Kim Summit in June and the current dual-freeze détente.

Notwithstanding much of the hue and cry over delaying, scaling back or suspending joint US-ROK military exercises, such decisions are mostly symbolic and diplomatic, rather than a meaningful change in military posture. Unit-level drills to maintain force readiness have continued in earnest, and the capabilities that are deliberately demonstrated through drills are simply less on display than they were last year. The US military’s ability to project overwhelming force remains very much in play, as does its regional presence and posture for purposes of deterrence. By publicly adjusting these exercises to reduce tensions and support diplomatic efforts, the US is communicating good faith and flexibility in pursuing negotiations but remains ready to respond to provocations.

In the past, conciliatory gestures of this nature have always had to consider the risk of degrading the ability of joint forces to operate seamlessly in the event of crisis. Similarly, the imperative of maintaining and enhancing combat-readiness had to be weighed against the risk of unintended military or diplomatic complications. However, a new and unique approach to conducting military exercises and routine military deployments will make these trade-offs easier to calibrate.

Dynamic Force Employment

The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) specifically requires the Department of Defense (DOD) to “be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.” A key ingredient of this is Dynamic Force Employment (DFE), whereby existing assets are utilized in a unique and innovative manner. Real world scenarios are seldom predictable and never fully align with operational plans. Nonetheless, US joint military exercises in East Asia often follow a well-publicized schedule and participants, who play both offense and defense, are well apprised in advance of the details of the game. The opportunity to add greater realism to this paradigm should be pursued and can be accomplished through carefully selected elements of DFE in East Asia. Incorporating DFE into US presence operations, rotational deployments and joint exercises in Korea is critical if we hope to enhance readiness while also achieving political ends given current political constraints and national defense goals.

In April 2018, the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group departed Naval Station Norfolk to contribute to combat operations in Iraq and Syria (Operation Inherent Resolve) in May and June, and provide support to BALTOPS 2018, projecting air capabilities across Europe from the Adriatic. The Truman Strike Group returned to Norfolk in late July, a much shorter time at sea than is customary. Just five weeks after she returned to port, the carrier again crossed the Atlantic with a full complement of escorts and air assets to participate in Exercise Trident Juncture. This sort of demonstrated agility is precisely the type of operational unpredictability recommended in the NDS.

The model utilized for the Truman can be applied to enhance readiness in large- and small-scale exercises as well. Strategic vulnerability is an advantage in a training environment—in other words, the less advance knowledge participants have of upcoming exercises, the more realistic those scenarios become. In addition, the added unpredictability complicates contingency planning by opposing forces. Military success is often dictated by the enemy’s preparedness, and the agility of US forces. The more acclimated to unpredictability the military is, and the more they are forced to improvise at the operational level, the better prepared the US will be to outmaneuver and outfight its opponents in the event of actual conflict. As Sun Tzu said, “In conflict, direct confrontation will lead to engagement and surprise will lead to victory. Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win.”

Dynamic Exercises

There are several pathways available to planners to make exercises more dynamic and less rote and predictable—for example, by changing start dates on short notice, requiring forces to adjust operational objectives to an accelerated timeline, or imposing additional unplanned logistical challenges. In addition, forces can be placed on standby for scheduled windows of opportunity with no known start date and time or called up to conduct practice sorties based on real-world threats. In these cases, there should always be an available training exercise for planners to execute. If portions of a major exercise need to be cancelled or scaled-back, an alternate scenario should be introduced, such as a simulated humanitarian relief effort nearby. All planning efforts should include scenarios that introduce agility and permit flexibility to become a hallmark of the expected training schedule.

The application of DFE presents a viable and useful alternative to simply scaling back routine drills by allowing exercise scenarios to dramatically shift to different goals and missions. Shifting focus in the midst of an exercise can increase readiness by conditioning US forces for fluid conflict scenarios. Large-scale joint exercises such as Foal Eagle are ripe for proof of this concept.

The ongoing negotiations with North Korea present planners with an opportunity to reimagine how rotational deployments and force readiness can be managed in alternative ways. The US should continue to explore methods to prepare its forces for battle without showing force on the Korean Peninsula. For example, forces scheduled to rotate to Korea may participate in large-scale exercises elsewhere, such as Valiant Shield. South Korean forces might be invited to participate in other multilateral regional exercises, such as Exercise Cope North. The US could also place more emphasis on smaller unit-level exercises or training foreign troops in the US through programs like “reverse Pathways.” All these options would allow comparable field training exercises to be conducted without raising tensions based on their geographic proximity to North Korea.

Shifting forces in the region can also allow the US to convey less conciliatory messages to potential adversaries. Deviation from the established routine is one of the main mechanisms by which the US military attempts to produce operational surprise. For example, when the US has wanted to show resolve with North Korea in recent years it has added offensive elements, such as submarines, stealth fighters and bombers to assets usually included in annual drills. The larger the US’ regularly scheduled exercises are, the more difficult it becomes to make a distinctively impressive show of force. Thus, modulating the size or frequency of routine exercises should allow the US to increase the psychological impact of more modest surges in the future, and reduce the cost of its baseline deterrence posture. Forces that are not committed to the Korean Peninsula are available for presence operations elsewhere in the short term and give the US greater depth and latitude to show force in case of future escalation.


Readiness and diplomacy require a measured approach to remain complementary. Conciliatory measures and reductions in the scale of exercises provide clear diplomatic benefits but offer no operational advantages. By changing the size, content or location of exercises on short notice, the US can enhance readiness and improve its deterrence posture by demonstrating to potential rivals that the US military is highly mobile, agile and capable of responding effectively to any scenario. Proper planning and the availability of alternatives to routine rotational drills in the form of Dynamic Force Employment can assist leaders when it becomes necessary to quickly allocate resources to either bolster readiness or diplomacy without sacrificing either.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea