The Pentagon has “suspended all planning” as expected for August joint military exercises with South Korea and several allies in the region, to comply with President Donald Trump’s desire to pull back on so-called “war games,” according to a statement from Dana White, chief Pentagon spokesperson.
“Consistent with President Trump’s commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August’s defensive ‘wargame’ (Freedom Guardian),” White said in the statement. “We are still coordinating additional actions. No decisions on subsequent wargames have been made.”
But as a practical matter, restarting large-scale exercises is impractical. The August exercise, named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, had been long scheduled for August and final planning with several nations’ military forces had been well underway. In 2017, the annual exercise involved 17,500 US service members with 3,000 coming from outside South Korea. The drills include high-level commanders in computer-simulated defensive exercises, as well as units in the field, all practicing readiness under a scenario in which the Korean Peninsula goes from peace through a crisis stage and then into open conflict, according to a defense official.
Trump announced his intention to end military exercises with South Korea a week ago during a news conference in Singapore, where he had a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It’s inappropriate to be having war games,” he said, calling them “provocative” and adding that “it really is something that I think they very much appreciate.”
Canceling the August exercise has deep implications for Defense Secretary James Mattis’ relationship with defense ministers across the region. Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all participated in this drill in the past.
One indicator that the allies had been unaware of the Trump administration’s decision was a quick statement last week from the South Korean government that it was trying to determine what the President’s announcement meant. Several defense officials said there was concern some allies might think Mattis and the Trump administration were keeping important decisions from them and sharing information first with Kim instead.
Ending this major exercise is just one piece of the puzzle the Pentagon is trying to put together to carry out the President’s intent. The White House had indicated it wanted regular readiness training and training exchanges to continue, but defense officials say they need to figure out what military activities the President still wants to take place.
Mattis – along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford – and top commanders are trying to fashion detailed directives to the military on what exercises and drills will be suspended, several US officials told CNN last week. A major challenge, according to these officials, is to turn Trump’s broad intentions into detailed military guidance. For example, they say “war games” is not a specific military term.
Officials continue to reiterate that all exercises are defensive in nature, even as Trump called them “provocative” – a word out of the North Korean playbook.
After Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the next major military exercise involving the US would be in the spring of 2019, officials say.
CNN’s Pamela Brown and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.