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U.S. Army general: Suspending military exercises in South Korea caused 'slight degradation' in readiness

U.S. Army general: Suspending military exercises in South Korea caused 'slight degradation' in readiness
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The general nominated to take command of U.S. forces in South Korea said Tuesday that suspending military exercises on the peninsula was a “prudent risk” despite resulting in a “slight degradation” of readiness.

“The suspension of the exercise this past August and September I would say was prudent risk if we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship with” North Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “Something has to adjust, in my view, to be able to start to build trust and confidence as we move forward in the relationship."

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“I think that there was certainly degradation to the readiness of the force for the combined forces,” he added. “That’s a key exercise to maintain continuity and to continue to practice our interoperability, and so there was a slight degradation."

He said he has "great confidence" that the current commander, Gen. Vincent Brooks, has implemented "a mitigation plan to be able to sustain that until the next series of exercises are planned.”

Abrams made the remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to become the next commander of U.S. Forces Korea, South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and United Nations Command. If confirmed, Abrams would take control of U.S. and allied forces on the Korean Peninsula at a time of delicate diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.

President TrumpDonald TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report MORE has offered optimistic assessments of the progress of negotiations on denuclearization with Pyongyang, and on Monday said he would have a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the “not too distant future.”

After his first summit with Kim in June, Trump announced that he was suspending joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, deriding them as provocative war games that are too expensive.

The announcement caught the Pentagon and U.S. allies by surprise, particularly the fact that Trump’s rhetoric echoed North Korea’s description of the exercises.

Still, the Pentagon later announced that it was canceling the summer Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise and two Korean Marine Exchange Program exercises.

At an August press briefing, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE said the Pentagon had “no plans at this time” to suspend any future military exercises with South Korea. A day later, Mattis walked that back, saying there has been “no decision” on future exercises.

That same day, Trump tweeted that there is “no reason at this time” for the exercises, which he again described as “war games” costing “large amount of money.”

Abrams said on Tuesday that planning is moving ahead on annual spring military exercises, adding that whether they end up taking place is a decision for those above him.

“Exercises that are scheduled for the spring, the major exercises, to the best of my knowledge, they are proceeding with planning,” he said. “That is a future decision to be made by alliance leaders.”

He also indicated that he does not think the exercises are provocative.

“I believe that exercises and training are routine activities of militaries across the world to maintain the readiness of their force in accordance with their national defense strategies,” he said.

The mitigation plans to try to make up for the canceled exercises include conducting smaller, staff-level exercises, he said.

Asked how many exercises can be canceled before a significant decline in readiness, Abrams said that would be one of his first assessments if he is confirmed.

“That’s hard to judge,” Abrams said. “If confirmed, this will be one of my top priorities when I get on the ground … to do my own personal assessment. I know from my 36-plus years of service about what the shelf-life is of the readiness of our forces to be able to conduct certain activities, but I need to apply that judgment based on what I assess when I get on the ground.”

Trump has suggested he wants to withdraw all 28,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. After the Singapore summit in June, he said he had no plans to do that now, but added, “I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home.”

Abrams said Tuesday that withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea would present a “significant amount of risk” tactically if North Korea doesn’t reduce its conventional forces. 

“Strategically,” he added, “there would have to a whole lot more discussion about what additional capabilities we’d be willing to bear.”