U.S. set to expand base in Korea

Tom Philpott

Two deadly incidents instigated by North Korea in 2010, most recently the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island Nov. 23, have raised military tension on the peninsula to its highest level in many years.

But the provocations, said the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, haven’t weaken a commitment by the United States to expand base infrastructure so that, perhaps by 2020, all married service members ordered to Korea will be able to bring their families at government expense.

Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp, who also commands United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command in Korea, explained in a phone interview that “tour normalization” — an effort to expand the number of “command-sponsored” families in South Korea — must level off now at 4600 families, up from 1800 when Sharp assumed command in June 2008.

Sharp said he remains “passionate” about expanding command sponsorship even more so that, one day, assignments to Korea are as accommodating to military families as duty in Germany or Japan.

But base infrastructure will need to grow, particularly the capacity of Department of Defense dependent schools, Sharp said. It could be two years before the number of families here can continue to climb, he added.

Sharp also explained his recent decision to move from a “first-come, first-served” policy on command sponsorship in Korea to a new job-based priority list. The intent, he said, is to improve readiness by ensuring that personnel in leadership billets, or with critical skills, can stay for at least two-year tours by authorizing them to bring along their families.

Most of the 28,500 U.S. service members in Korea still serve 13 months “unaccompanied” tours. About 1,500 families live there without command sponsorship. That means they paid their own travel costs, they only can live off base and their children attend Department of Defense schools on a space-available basis. If no space is available, the children must be home-schooled or enrolled in expensive private schools.

In 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates first approved a plan to expand command-sponsorship in Korea. The response from families was more enthusiastic than expected, forcing Sharp last month to cap the number of command-sponsored families at the existing level of 4,600. He estimates 10,000 married members still serve here without families.

The only reason for this, Sharp said, “is because we haven’t been able to build the infrastructure to accommodate them.”

A plan is due to Gates by March on building infrastructure and reaching full tour normalization in Korea at an affordable pace, given tighter budgets.

Having more families in Korea “has made a huge difference,” Sharp said. He listed four gains, putting operational effectiveness at the top. More families means longer stays and lower turnover and that improves readiness.

It “greatly increases our capability,” said Sharp. “I don’t have to train a new soldier, sailor, airman or Marine every year, which is what we’ve been doing [in Korea] really since 1953.”

Second, Sharp said, “it greatly reduces stress on our families. We have enough deployments or unaccompanied tours around the world, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there is absolutely no reason to have it here in Korea,” apart from limits imposed by current infrastructure.

Third, it “sends a huge signal of our commitment to the Republic of Korea,” Sharp said. When the North Koreans and Chinese see U.S. forces building infrastructure and U.S. families staying longer, it underscores how vital South Korea is to the United States. That in turn encourages China to advise the North Koreans “not to do anything stupid,” Sharp said.

Finally, he said, tour normalization will give future U.S. leaders more capable units in South Korea for possible deployment “to somewhere else in the world. Obviously our first commitment is always to the defense of the Republic of Korea…But who knows what this part of the world is going to look like in several years.”