Category Archives: Security

With the Drawdown of US Forces in Germany, Is South Korea Next?

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


With the drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany underway, a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea is now more likely than ever, given evolving U.S. defense priorities and longstanding trends on the Korean Peninsula. Rumors of an imminent U.S. force drawdown in Korea have been circulating since at least 2019, and President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to reduce large overseas basing. South Korea, however, is a particularly contentious case, as any changes to the size and structure of U.S. forces must take into consideration both the local mission of deterring against North Korea, as well as the broader U.S. strategic mission of refocusing on great power competition, particularly with China. And that will require reassessing South Korea’s own national defense capabilities, the benefits and risks of having a large forward force based on the Asian mainland, and the impact of any shift in forces on the overall perception of U.S. commitment and reliability with other allies and partners in the region.

The Question of U.S. Forces in South Korea

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to reduce its large-scale overseas basing, both to reduce financial and political costs and create a more flexible and responsive force structure better adapted to the changing threat dynamic. Cost-sharing agreements are often contentious, and the current stalemate between the United States and South Korea has dragged on with no end in sight. U.S. basing is also often a source of protest inside South Korea, over land use, accidents or illegal behavior by U.S. personnel, and the perception of continued occupation. Reducing the U.S. footprint and shifting more to naval, air and rotational units could ease these tensions.

Under the current National Defense Strategy (NDS), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is now reviewing the overall posture of U.S. forces abroad, with the mandate toward a more flexible forward posture. Since the early 2000s, U.S. forces in Korea have moved out of the major facility at Yongsan in Seoul. The United States has also pulled most of its forces south of the Han River. During the Iraq War, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush cut total troop numbers in Korea by nearly 12,000 as well, in part because forces based in Korea cannot be readily used for contingencies elsewhere.

Amid reports that the Pentagon had already recommended force restructuring in Korea, Esper said on July 21 that he had given no order to withdraw forces, but then emphasized that he was reviewing all geographic combatant commands in line with the current NDS, with a desire for more rotational forces and greater strategic flexibility.

In that context, a longstanding suggestion for reshaping the U.S. military posture in South Korea is a further shift toward more naval and air assets, and reduced U.S. ground forces — potentially moving more ground forces to a rotational basis, rather than extended deployments. Doing so would maintain a deterrent presence in Korea and retain the benefit of training with South Korean forces, while still reducing constraints due to limits on the deployment of Korean-based forces to conflicts elsewhere. Rotational forces also have a smaller footprint in overseas basing, as they do not include family or family support functions that extended deployments entail.


The U.S. will not abandon South Korea given its value in deterring both North Korea and China. Washington will, however, continue to reshape its overseas force posture.


The restructuring of U.S. forces, however, is complicated by U.S. operational control (OPCON) over South Korean forces in the event of war. South Korea has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War in the early 1950s, with the South Korean military only regaining formal OPCON of its own forces in peacetime in 1994. Over the decades, the transfer of wartime OPCON to South Korea has been delayed numerous times due to its military’s perceived unreadiness and occasional flare-ups of tensions with North Korea. For South Korea, particularly under liberal governments like that of current President Moon Jae In, OPCON transfer is a critical step to fully realizing its independence and national pride. Korea was under Japanese control from 1910 to 1945, and has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War. And while its alliance with the United States remains important for Seoul, the nature of the two countries’ military relationship is still at times seen as paternalistic

The Case for Restructuring

There are several arguments in support of such a restructuring. For one, U.S. forces in South Korea are largely a Cold War left-over and are limited in use for operations outside the country. South Korea, Germany and Japan continue to represent the largest hosting of U.S. forces abroad, and the largest expenditures for basing. Prior to the announced drawdown, Germany hosted more than 35,000 U.S. forces, South Korea more than 26,000 and Japan more than 55,000, according to the latest tally by the Heritage Foundation’s Defense Manpower Data Center. The Pentagon has traditionally avoided using U.S. forces stationed in South Korea for operations elsewhere, both due to the North Korean threat and to South Korean political concerns.

The balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula also currently favors South Korea, reducing the necessity of a large ready U.S. presence. That balance was an important consideration in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to reduce forces in South Korea in 1971, desiring for Seoul to carry more of the burden for its own national defense. A revision of U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korean strength also played a role in reversing President Jimmy Carter’s decision to further reduce forces in South Korea less than a decade later.

North Korean capabilities no longer require the U.S. force posture currently configured in South Korea as well. While North Korea has significantly improved its missile and rocket capabilities, the effective counter is not necessarily more forces open the ground, but rather improved missile defense capabilities and the development of South Korean counter-strike capabilities. South Korea has been constrained in the latter for decades by the United States for fear of triggering a war with North Korea that would lock Washington into conflict. But Washington recently agreed to allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel rockets and has expanded its acceptable payload size. South Korea has also recently identified ground and air-launch missiles as a key component of its force development, along with local missile defense. Given the developments in the South Korean military and the situation in North Korea, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would see a reduction of U.S forces in South Korea as an invitation to roll tanks south.

The Case Against Restructuring

But there are also valid arguments against a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea, including:

Preserving a key, amphibious entry point to Asia in the case of a U.S.-China conflict. South Korea’s most concrete value to the U.S. defense posture is perhaps its role as an amphibious bridge between the maritime world and the Asian continent. Strategic competition between the United States and China plays out where the maritime power of the United States meets the continental power of China. Korea has long been the bridge between maritime Japan and continental China, for culture as well as warfare — serving as the launching point for the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, the Japanese attempted invasion of China in the 16th century, and the Japanese imperial invasion of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United States is strengthening military ties with other amphibious points around the Chinese periphery, including Vietnam and India. And while South Korea may be vulnerable due to its lack of strategic depth, its proximity to the Chinese north fleet and Beijing also makes it a key strategic point.


It’s unlikely North Korea would see a reduction of U.S forces as an invitation to roll tanks south.


Maintaining the longstanding U.S.-South Korea relationship. In both South Korea and the United States, support of a continued robust U.S. force presence is often based on the two countries’ 70-year military partnership. U.S. forces fought in Korea, Korean forces fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, and the two continue to train together.

Reassuring other allies of the United States’ commitment to the region. A robust presence of U.S. forces in South Korea also serves as a consistent reminder to North Korea, and perhaps China, of a U.S. commitment to protect its democratic allies in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea clearly took this to heart, and its military development has shifted from a focus on overwhelming the South Korean ground forces to a missile, rocket and cyber-heavy emphasis that targets the U.S. forces and interests. Countering these capabilities requires a nearby U.S. presence, just as countering Russian threats or Iran’s missile and nuclear developments require U.S. military operations across Europe and the Middle East, respectively.

A reduction of forces could signal that, despite its Pacific Defense Initiative, the United States is more concerned with keeping competition and conflict bottled up in Asian waters far from U.S. shores, rather than strengthening and defending its allies and partners. Despite hosting more U.S. troops, Japan is particularly sensitive to any changes to the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, which helps buffer it from Asian conflict. Japan has been very vocal each time a major revision to U.S. forces in South Korea has been contemplated, as a complete withdrawal would leave Japan the frontline. And while Tokyo has gone far to reinterpret its pacifist constitution, there is still strong political and social sentiment against Japan’s role as a regional belligerent.

Current Dynamics Facilitate Restructuring

The United States is not going to simply abandon South Korea, but will instead continue to reshape its overseas force posture — reducing singular large basing in favor of more flexible and dispersed permeant and rotational presence, while allowing for the concentration of forces as needed, rather than as dictated by existing large basing. With the U.S. presidential election less than three months away, there is pressure on Trump to take action on issues it wants to see accomplished before a potential change of government, and reducing U.S. forces abroad has been a key issue from the start of his administration.

With South Korea currently under a liberal government, and seeking to heal rifts with North Korea while strengthening its own national defense capabilities and industry, a tailored reduction of U.S. forces may not meet significant resistance from Seoul, though it would certainly play into the deadlock over cost-sharing. While always a contentious issue, there may now well be an alignment of factors that make this the time for the United States to start once again downsizing its military presence in South Korea.


Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.

Libya: From Civil War to Regional Conflict?

A low-intensity civil war has been raging in Libya since after its 2011 revolution. The situation escalated in 2014 after Islamists ignored the results of parliamentary elections and forced the parliament and internationally recognized government to seek refuge in eastern Libya. That same year Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and loyal to the elected parliament, started a heavy-handed offensive to end an Islamist assassination campaign in Benghazi, the largest city in the east, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered two years before.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) attempted to broker a deal, the Libya Political Agreement (LPA), focused on creating a new government. The LPA ultimately failed however because the negotiations were viewed as unrepresentative of actual power relationships on the ground. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), formed by the LPA, relocated to Tripoli in March 2016 and has been under the de-facto control of Tripoli and Misrata militias ever since. Libyans outside of the Tripolitanian area reject the GNA and continue to complain about the perceived unfair distribution of resources and wealth as well as the criminal enrichment of the militias in the capital region.

An LNA offensive on the Tripoli in April last year torpedoed a UN initiative for a Libyan National Conference in Ghadames after several failed initiatives to revive the doomed LPA. In the eyes of many across the country, Heftar purposely tanked the initiative his supporters deemed unbearable. For the GNA and its allies, on the other hand, he simply seeks to establish a military dictatorship.

The Main Warring Factions

The conflict is primarily between the GNA and Marshal Haftar’s LNA. As the GNA has very limited capabilities, it is supported by Burkan Al-Ghadab (BaG), which is both the name given to the counteroffensive (and translates loosely to Volcano of Rage) against the LNA  as well as the unofficial collective name for the anti-Haftar militias fighting for the government formed under the LPA. The BaG, strongly supported by Turkey and Qatar, is run by the Misrata militias, the largest single military block, and all of the major Tripoli militias. A larger number of radical Islamists including Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliates from the Tripolitania area fights among the ranks of the BaG, initially providing the backbone for several of its units. Several hundred Turkey-supported jihadists from Syria reinforced BaG early on in the battle for Tripoli. An alliance between the Misrata — Turkey’s closest allies in Libya and followers of Grand Mufti Sadeq Al Ghariani — and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), that has maintained a strong influence on politics, security, and the economy in Tripolitania over the years, maintains a dominating control over the GNA and BaG.

The core of the LNA are army units supported by various loosely connected militias. Its key foreign backers (and weapon suppliers) are Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The LNA has a very wide definition of terrorism, considering moderate Islamists and AQ affiliates, as well as the Islamic State (IS) alike, as terrorists. This approach has merged the usually disunited Islamists into a firm anti-Heftar block.

The civil war in Libya is now a war of attrition with belligerents who have very different capabilities. LNA casualties are mounting as it is no match for the state-of-the-art equipped Turkish troops in Libya. These troops maintain combat drones, electronic warfare capacities, long-range precision artillery, warships, and, most importantly, impressive air defense capabilities. As of 20 May, after retaking the last remaining LNA base in western Tripolitania, Al Wattiya, the BaG offensive has gained momentum while the LNA tries to consolidate its positions in the south of Tripoli.

An International Playground

Libya is a geostrategically important country holding Africa’s largest oil reserves. Naturally, several other countries have important and vital strategic interests there. Security-related interests are mostly concerned with the various Islamist groups, ungoverned areas, and Libya’s porous borders which allow for smuggling and human trafficking. Additionally, there are value-related interests focused on promoting either democracy or political Islam. Finally, several countries are economically interested in Libya’s valuable hydrocarbon industry. Between Libya’s regional neighbors (Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) and concerned parties in Europe (namely Turkey, but also France, Italy, and Russia), all eyes are on the conflict between the LNA and GNA.

Turkey‘s troubled economy is in dire need of Libya as an important export destination and seeks a major share in reconstruction. The survival of the GNA and a leading role for Misrata are essential for Ankara’s economic interests. Turkey gives permanent residence to several prominent former LIFG leaders (a dormant former AQ affiliate), members of the Libyan MB, prominent former Benghazi and Derna Islamist fighters, and Libya’s Grand Mufti. Turkey uses their influence to pursue its interests in Libya. Qatar is also a major investor in Libya. Both Qatar and Turkey are providing weapons and military equipment for several of the pro-GNA militias, particularly those from Misrata. In fact, the Turkish military itself is the backbone of the war against the LNA.

Egypt, Libya’s neighbor, is closely watching the crisis across the border for any evidence of a terrorist safe haven developing so close to home. Libya is also an important labor market for almost one million Egyptians who cannot find work at home. Italy and France have significant strategic interests regarding Libya, but while, for Italy, the economy and migration are in the foreground, regional security and counter-terrorism are the French priority. For Moscow, the chaos in Libya is an opportunity to regain influence. Russia is most likely interested in getting a substantial share of the reconstruction business and influence over the hydrocarbon industry, particularly the gas market as well as establishing a “beachhead“ in North Africa. While there are no vital American national interests at stake in Libya, its instability is an increasing threat to US interests in the wider region.

Consequences of Developments on the Ground

After explosions significantly damaged the Misrata airbase on May 6, the LNA increased its efforts to achieve a breakthrough in Tripoli but is unable to make any progress. After the recent setback at Al Wattiya, and as Misrata airbase is fully operational again, the LNA will find it very difficult to maintain its remaining positions in Tripolitania without significant outside support from Egypt or the UAE.

Currently, there is no major BaG offensive operation east of Abu Grein – Wadi Zamzam, an area to the west of the oil-rich Sirte Basin. It is possible there is a tacit understanding between Turkey and Egypt that the BaG/Turkish offensive will stop short of Sirte and the central Al Jufra Oasis. However, keeping the significance of the hydrocarbon resources east of Sirte in mind, it is doubtful that such an agreement will hold. Furthermore, if the Cyrenaica separates from Libya as a consequence of the LNA defeat in Tripolitania, the Turkish-Libyan Maritime Agreement from November last year delineating their exclusive economic zones, an agreement of critical importance to Turkey, would become irrelevant.

If there is a military escalation between Ankara and Cairo over Libya, Egypt is in a much better position to provide direct logistic support without risk of interception. Fighter aircraft will be able to attack targets all over Libya directly from bases in western Egypt. Even ground forces could easily intervene if required, whereas Turkish transport aircraft, drones, or even fighters flying to Libya could be intercepted at ease.

If the LNA is defeated in Tripolitania, Turkey will become the dominant political and economic power in Tripolitania and Fezzan. This will have a huge negative impact on European strategic interests in Libya. It can be assumed that Turkey will become the favored economic partner of (western) Libya, strongly undermining the position of the various European stakeholders, in particular Italy and France. Turkey will also gain a more important position on the European gas market and will certainly be able to influence deliveries through the Green Stream pipeline that runs through Western Libya to Italy. Furthermore, Turkey will be able to control the pipeline’s central route towards Italy in addition to the eastern Mediterranean migration route to Europe. This will significantly increase Turkey’s ability to pressure the EU. Turkey will also probably continue to expand its political and economic influence towards Tunisia, Algeria, and the southern Sahara states. This includes support of political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly some even more radical groups that will bring Turkey into conflict with vital French strategic interests.

A Civil or Regional War?

Libya’s civil war is home-made and its roots are domestic but it is not a typical proxy war. International support is key for both sides and will not end anytime soon. If one side loses its arms suppliers for whatever reason, the other would certainly prevail. No party trusts the other, efficient enforcement of the arms embargo is unrealistic, and Libya is simply too important. Regular demands for a “unified international position on Libya” or a “resolution between the two major parties” usually means unification of all efforts against the LNA. Keeping the deep rift within Libya and the strong interests from outside in mind, it is doubtful that such a “solution” has a chance to succeed.

Turkey’s President Erdogan is close to establishing facts on the ground by a combination of diplomatic and military action. The BaG is very likely to win the war as long as Turkish military capabilities in Libya are not neutralized and are able to sustain its efforts in light of mounting casualties and an eventual escalation in Syria. Egypt is hesitant to get fully involved in what could be a protracted and very costly conflict. Russia has limited capabilities and avoids even engaging the Turkish military in Syria directly and they are certainly hesitant to do so in Libya. 

A political settlement is currently much less likely than a military decision, but with the potential upcoming defeat of the LNA at Turkey’s hand, it will not solve Libya’s problems. In fact, the situation could easily escalate and lead to a regional conflict leaving Europe and the United States to learn to live with the outcome.


Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.

Why Russia Cannot Win

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response. 

Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions. 

Indirect Support

Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest. 

To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered. 

However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.

Playing the Long Game

The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.

Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.


Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.