WASHINGTON — The decision to cancel major military exercises on the Korean peninsula this year caused a slight degradation in the ability of American and Korean forces to work together and remain ready to fight, the U.S. general nominated to take command of troops in South Korea told senators Tuesday.
Gen. Robert Abrams said that commanders are planning a number of smaller staff exercises to rebuild the ability of U.S. and allied forces to operate together. And he was non-committal when asked if the major exercises currently being planned for next year will be held.
"I think the temporary suspension of exercises that were previously scheduled for August and September were a prudent risk based on the opportunity to open up additional diplomatic efforts and negotiation between the United States and the DPRK," said Abrams, using an abbreviation for North Korea. "Going forward we know inherently by not conducting training and exercises that there will be a degradation of readiness and capability and interoperability of the combined forces."
He said any decision on the major exercises planned for next spring will be made by alliance leaders. But Abrams also warned that Pyongyang continues to pose a significant military threat — with both nuclear and conventional capabilities — and "America must remain clear-eyed about the situation on the ground and allow diplomacy to continue to work."
President Donald Trump caught military leaders by surprise in June when he announced the suspension of major military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, in the wake of his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. He has criticized the wargames as costly and provocative, saying late last month that there was no reason to spend a lot of money on the drills. But he also has warned that the U.S. could "instantly" relaunch the exercises again if needed.
The cancellation was an olive branch to Pyongyang, which has long complained that the exercises were invasion preparations. There was some hope that the gesture of shelving the fall exercises would foster goodwill and help nudge the North in the denuclearization talks. But beyond returning the potential remains of about 55 U.S. troops missing from the Korean War, and its continuing suspension in its missile and nuclear tests, there has been little movement from the North.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters last month that the drills planned for spring could go on, but said no final decision has been made. Other military officials have said the planning is continuing because the wargames require months of preparation.
Senators on Tuesday spent much of their time quizzing Abrams about North Korea, including how difficult it would be to evacuate civilians from the peninsula in the event of an attack. Abrams agreed it would be a "wicked problem," but said there are plans in place and they are rehearsed twice a year.
Asked if the U.S. should have American troops serve in South Korea without having their families with them, Abrams said all options should be considered, but he would want to make his own risk assessment. If confirmed for the new post, he said his top priority would be to conduct a full assessment of the military's warfighting ability in Korea.
Abrams would replace Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, the outgoing commander who has been in Korea since spring 2016.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Abrams has done multiple combat tours including in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and currently heads U.S. Army Forces Command. He comes from a legendary military family -- his father and two brothers all served in the Army. His father, Gen. Creighton Abrams Jr., commanded military operations in Vietnam for about four years and served as the Army chief of staff. The Army named the M1 Abrams tank after him.