North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea in 1951. The United Nations rallied member states and pushed the attacking forces back toward the north resulting in an armistice between the two countries.
On Oct. 1, 1953, ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty was signed to ensure the safety of the Republic of Korea. The military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian (formerly, Ulchi Focus Lens) was established in 1976 to provide further defense of the ROK and is carried out in the spirit of the treaty and the armistice.
The exercise is one of two annual Combined Forces Command peninsula-wide exercises and is named after Ulchi Mundeok, a Korean military leader who repelled an invasion by China's Sui dynasty in the 7th century.
This past summer, Soldiers of the 412th Theater Engineer Command were once again called on to participate in UFG and provided engineer expertise during this computer-assisted simulation exercise.
"UFG is really an exercise designed to help at the four-star level," said Maj. Gen. William M. Buckler, Jr., commanding general of the 412th Theater Engineer Command. "The Combined Forces Commander, Gen. James Thurman, and all of the four-star commands that the ROK Army has, including their Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Jeong Seung-jo, UFG is designed to help them map and figure out how we interact and how we all will work together should it be necessary if we come in armed conflict with North Korea again."
To do that, for UFG these top commanders bring over and use many different types of units on the Korean Peninsula that potentially might be needed should hostilities break out.
"In our case the 412th TEC is one of many units that participate in the exercise," Buckler said.
"Those large commands could sit around a table and just talk through things, but it is a whole lot different when you actually get units on the ground and have them interact. It is easier for us to identify were the friction points are, things that rub together and don't work as smoothly as you would like, as well as to develop new questions. The more we exercise the better we become at it, the better type of questions we ask," he said.
With this in mind, the 412th TEC is not the primary target of the training at UFG.
"We are an exercising unit, but we take advantage of the training opportunity there because it is exactly the kinds of things we need to be tested on," Buckler said, "training our staff on managing engineer operations at the two-star level. And this high-intensity exercise is a once in the world opportunity. This is the only place we get this type of exercise."
While other units might have more troops on the ground during UFG, the 412th TEC's mission is a command post exercise, where Soldiers from the headquarters staff and deployable command post tackle the issues and scenarios from a conceptual basis.
"All of our exercises start off as a response to aggressive acts by the North Korean Army and government," Buckler said. "We have to then address that aggression appropriately so that we stop, prevent them from escalating to nuclear, to chemical hostilities. So there are certain actions that are offensive to make those things happen, but only after we are aggressed by the North Koreans."
At times, the atmosphere seemed tense in the 412th TEC tactical operations center as the Soldiers responded to issues hitting them all at once.
"It is designed to be stressful," Buckler said. "You know the old adage, 'you are never going to play better than you practice.' There are a number of sports analogies here, 'hard work on the practice field, saves blood on the playing field.' Any of those sports analogies are really true. "
"So we want to stress. I am going to tell that we are not stressed enough," Buckler said.
"It's the truth, but it's a great training venue for us," Buckler continued. "First of all, just the time required to do something similar like UFG, to put together our staff, to stress our staff, would be a tremendous requirement. You get a wide variety of people injecting many things into this exercise, and we would never be able to think up all the things that go wrong, and what we want to do, if we were just sitting at home. So, the questions and issues we face during UFG make it easier for us to understand how to communicate better, the right questions to ask the units above us, below us, and on either side of us, the right types of interactions. We have LNOs in a number of other areas on the Korean peninsula in other units that require engineer support that we provide. Those LNOs help us coordinate that and help us understand what their requirements are a whole lot better than if we just exercised and tested ourselves."
While UFG would not be possible without the CPOF, command post of the future, Ventrillo, Adobe Connect, Sharepoint, and other software platforms, one major key to the operations is human relationships.
"If you got into a scrap today, you would pick someone to help you that you knew you could trust and count on," Buckler said. "You only do that by developing relationships. So, it is an important part. This is a great opportunity for us to develop those relationships with the active component, other members of the reserve component, the National Guard, the Koreans, the KATUSA-the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, and the Korean Service Corps. All of these are groups we need to reach out and touch and learn to be with.
One of the challenges with establishing long-term relationships with units in Korea is the frequent active duty turnover of personnel and with that, the loss of knowledge and experience in relation to UFG.
The US Army Reserve helps fill the gap here, when the same Soldiers from the 412th TEC participate in UFG many times and provided much needed continuity of effort and thought.
"How many people in Korea can remember what we did three years ago for an exercise?" asked Buckler. "Very few, because they weren't here. But we were. So we provide continuity. A lot of times, we know more about the plan than those who live here. It is a twist. They may be working it every day, but it is not every full day, because they have got other things to do. We remember what happened and what was intended to be. So, sometimes we are the knowledge people."
Establishing relationships is where Maj. Gary TorresGarcia comes in. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, commanding general of the United States Army Reserve Command, has worked with all the Army Service Component Commands and other critical commands, such as the 8th Army in Korea, to establish Army Reserve Engineer Teams and Army Reserve Engineer Cells. These ARETs and ARECs consist mainly of AGR Soldiers that will live at various ASCC locations throughout the world.
"This is an initiative to help us maintain a presence at the ASCCs so that we can react quicker and better to their needs," Buckler said. "We will have someone at each of these locations that can turn these needs and requirements into information that we can use to get the right people assigned for a mission, through USARC, through U.S Forces Command, to ensure that we are supporting our ASCCs properly."
As a part of this, TorresGarcia will live in Korea. He is the point of contact with the 8th Army, and will relay to the 412th TEC any engineer issues they have and any other engineer issues the 412th needs to be involved with.
"It is my intent that we leverage him hard so that we are at the table either through him or with him, if he gives us enough early warning, when there is major planning going on or we are discussing exercises or discussing other types of opportunities to train our Soldiers in Korea," Buckler said.
As UFG13 came to a close, once again providing valuable training on essential tasks and ensuring that the U.S. is fully prepared to defend to the Republic of Korea, Buckler had this to say to his Soldiers who were there.
"We have some people who participate in UFG pretty regularly and some people who rotate through as you would expect in an Army Reserve command where we're limited on time," Buckler said. "We have come together in this exercise, a group of people who represent a core of a DCP and some of the 412th staff. They have really done an excellent job of learning to work together, learning how to reach out and find who they have to talk to. This is complicated as can be. It is Ph.D.-level work for Army staff. Our guys have done a great job, and I am really proud of the whole team."