Is 'Training' A 'War Game?' The Answer Could Determine U.S.-South Korea Exercises

Aug 30, 2018
Originally published on August 30, 2018 8:37 pm

Here's something to ponder: how do you define a war game? And when is it a military exercise, or just simply..."training."

That's at the heart of some confusion between the White House and the Pentagon, an institution that doesn't - unlike President Trump - use the term "war game."

The president suspended one large military exercise and a couple of smaller ones in a good faith gesture with North Korea in June, an effort to spur talks about the country's nuclear program.

But now that talks have stalled, there's a question about whether other military exercises will be suspended as well.

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had this to say.

"We suspended several exercises at the direction of the president. The good faith effort was made. We have had, we have done no planning to suspend others."

"No planning to suspend others." But the next day President Trump said this in a tweet:

"There is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint US-South Korea war games. ....Besides the president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan, if he chooses."

Is the president talking about the exercises he already suspended? Or the ones being planned for the future? It's not clear. It's a simple tweet. But some of those exercises are coming up pretty fast, and Mattis said planning is underway.

So the Pentagon is now drawing up a list of everything it is doing with South Korea, all exercises and training events. And they are struggling to determine the terminology for each.

One is called Courageous Channel. That's an exercise slated for October that practices evacuating civilians in case of a North Korean attack, or the threat of one.

Another one later in the fall is called Vigilant Ace. That involves U.S. and South Korean warplanes.

The Pentagon will work with the White House to determine what military activity is acceptable to the president and what is not. Back in June, after the president met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he canceled a military exercise slated for this month. He did so at the urging of Kim, who called the annual exercise "provocative," a word Trump echoed.

Top military officials were caught by surprise.

And the Pentagon is already planning for one of its largest annual exercises, Foal Eagle, which is held in the spring. It involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops, along with ships and aircraft.

Officials say if that exercise is canceled, it could lead to lower readiness levels for U.S. troops in Korea, meaning the troops are not adequately prepared to fight. And as the military likes to say: "We train as we fight."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump calls them war games. The Pentagon calls them military exercises or, simply, training. And that's at the heart of some confusion between the White House and the Pentagon. The president suspended one large military exercise and a couple of smaller ones as part of a good faith gesture with North Korea over nuclear talks. Now that those talks have stalled, there's a question about whether other war games with South Korea will be suspended. And joining us to talk about this is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So it's clear that President Trump suspended some military exercises with South Korean forces. Where does the confusion come in here?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, it hinges on future military exercises or training. Now, here's Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on Tuesday talking about what the president did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MATTIS: We suspended several exercises at the direction of the president. The good faith effort was made. We have done no planning for suspending others.

BOWMAN: So Mattis is clear. We have no plans to suspend others. Then President Trump tweeted this last night, quote, "there is no reason at this time to be spending large amount of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games. Besides, the president can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan if he chooses." Now, is the president talking about the ones he already suspended or future ones? It's not clear to the military. And this is, of course, just a tweet and - but some of these exercises are coming up pretty fast, and Secretary Mattis said planning is underway.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like the president could be pulling the rug out from under his own military, but we're not sure. What's the Pentagon doing to try to clear up this confusion?

BOWMAN: Well, what the Pentagon is doing is drawing up a list of everything they'll be doing with South Korean forces over the coming months. And they're struggling to determine what quantifies as an exercise versus what is simply training. So you have a large exercise in October that practices evacuating civilians in case of a North Korean attack. And then another one comes later in the fall. There is an air exercise with South Korean and U.S. warplanes. So what they'll do is work at the White House and determine what is acceptable to the president and what is not. Now, of course, back in June when President Trump met with North Korean President Kim Jong Un in Singapore, he abruptly canceled a military exercise Kim called provocative that was slated for this month. U.S. military officials were caught by surprise. They want to avoid that happening again.

SHAPIRO: So is the Pentagon planning on going forward with everything on this list or just things that are smaller than a breadbox? I mean, what that's the cutoff here?

BOWMAN: Pretty much everything on this list, all these exercises, and, of course, they're planning all the time, and they're already gearing up for one of the largest next spring. It's called Foal Eagle that involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops and a lot of ships and aircraft, too. Now, here's the thing, Ari. If they cancel that one, and a decision has to be made around January, they may have to lower the readiness levels of U.S. forces, meaning they're not adequately prepared to fight. That's a huge deal.

SHAPIRO: Right. That points to the fact that these exercises happen for a reason. Why is troop readiness so important on the Korean peninsula?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, you're in a pretty dangerous neighborhood. You have new U.S. troops coming in every year working with South Korean troops, sometimes new commanders as you'll have a new commander coming in soon. So they have to learn how to communicate with each other. This is a very complex exercise. And as the military likes to say, you train as you fight.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks for coming into the studio, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.