For more than fifty years, a centerpiece of the US military presence in South Korea has been the Combined Forces Command. In the event of war, it will serve as the overall headquarters uniting Republic of Korea and US military personnel under a single bilateral military command. Its effectiveness hinges on its ability to achieve close coordination and foster a seamless flow of information between the two nations’ armed forces in a crisis scenario, where the fog of war and rapidly changing circumstances will pose significant challenges from the beginning. Moreover, with the Combined Forces Command’s relocation forty miles south of Seoul in late 2022, swift and unambiguous communication remains imperative to adequately prepare both nations’ formations to execute combined missions, plans, and tasks.
And yet, the lack of effective communication and interoperability between US and Republic of Korea (ROK) military forces presents a significant challenge to the combined force’s ability to respond to security threats in the Korean peninsula. Advanced information technology systems, such as AI-based natural language processing and machine learning algorithms, can be leveraged to facilitate secure communication and enhance interoperability between the two militaries. Through the development and deployment of these systems, US and ROK military forces can improve their ability to coordinate operations and respond to security threats, strengthening the combined force’s overall readiness and effectiveness.
Operating under the United States Forces Korea, the US military and the ROK component commands face significant challenges in effectively communicating through modern digital platforms. The set of factors contributing to these challenges is complex, but four in particular warrant discussion here.
First, cultural differences between US and ROK military personnel can create misunderstandings and miscommunications both during routine operations and in times of crisis. Amplified by South Korea’s social distancing measures during the pandemic, this issue further exacerbated existing language barriers, often leading to mistranslation or misunderstanding of vital information. The inability to share information quickly and accurately can delay decision-making, reduce the efficiency of combined operations, and create friction between the two forces, ultimately impacting their ability to achieve common objectives.
Second, challenges arise as a function of information security classification. Governed by existing policies and directives outlined by the US Department of Defense and ROK Ministry of National Defense, each military has its own systems and protocols for classifying and sharing sensitive information, which can create barriers to the free flow of vital intelligence between the two forces. This can lead to one force having critical information that members of the other force need. Still, the information cannot be shared due to security classification concerns or extended delays during foreign disclosure office reviews. In a rapidly evolving security environment, such delays can have severe consequences for the success of joint operations and the security of both nations.
Third, limited relationships between US and ROK personnel at various levels of command can further complicate communication and coordination. Trust and familiarity are essential for effective communication and cooperation, especially in high-pressure situations. When relationships are limited, misunderstandings can arise, and vital information may be withheld or misinterpreted. Building strong relationships through enhanced combined training, exercises, and personnel exchanges can help mitigate these challenges, but it requires a long-term commitment from both parties. US military rotational cycles of 12–24 months often hinder long-term commitment by both forces.
Finally, the complex stakeholder landscape in the mission partner environment adds another layer of difficulty to effective communication between the US and ROK militaries. The mission partner environment consists of various organizations, including national governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and private sector entities, each with its own interests, priorities, and communication channels. Navigating this landscape and coordinating efforts among all stakeholders can be challenging and time-consuming, potentially slowing down decision-making processes and limiting the effectiveness of joint operations.
In short, the US and ROK militaries face multiple challenges communicating and coordinating effectively through digital platforms. These challenges, if not addressed, can have significant implications for the success of joint operations and the security of both nations. Moreover, by understanding and addressing these challenges, US and ROK forces can strengthen their partnership and enhance their ability to respond to emerging threats in the region.
Harnessing the Power of AI
Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize military communication and coordination, overcoming many of the challenges faced by the Combined Forces Command. AI’s ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data in real time can help bridge the gap between different information systems, cultures, and languages, ensuring seamless communication and coordination between the two forces.
AI-enabled translation and communication tools can significantly reduce language barriers, enabling personnel from both forces to understand each other more effectively. This can help prevent misunderstandings and miscommunications due to language differences. Moreover, AI can be used to develop a common understanding of the operational environment by analyzing and synthesizing information from various sources, including doctrine, intelligence reports, and mission partner data. This shared understanding can improve situational awareness, facilitate quicker decision-making, and enable more effective joint operations.
AI can also play a critical role in addressing information security classification challenges. By automating the process of classifying and declassifying information, with human oversight, AI can help ensure that sensitive information is shared securely and efficiently between US and ROK forces. In addition, automated AI-based security analysis reduces subjectivity and the consequent risk of human error during the FDO process. Automating processes can ultimately speed up the flow of vital intelligence, enabling more rapid and informed decision-making in response to emerging threats.
To enhance ROK and US military cooperation, coordination, and communication using existing digital platforms and systems, the following recommendations focus on addressing specific challenges and leveraging available technologies and solutions:
- Addressing Information Security Classification Challenges: Secure and seamless transfer of information between different security domains and classifications is vital for effective joint operations. Cross domain solutions, such as Raytheon Trusted Gateway System or the General Dynamics Trusted Network Environment, can be deployed to overcome these challenges and facilitate secure communication between US and ROK forces.
- Overcoming Language Barriers: Language differences can hinder effective US and ROK personnel communication. However, advanced machine translation systems like Google Cloud Translation and Amazon Translate can be incorporated to provide real-time translation of text between English and Korean, enabling personnel who do not speak the same language to communicate effectively.
- Enhancing Communication Efficiency with Natural Language Processing: To improve the ability of US and ROK military forces to communicate effectively and efficiently, natural language processing platforms such as Google Cloud Natural Language and Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services can be integrated. These technologies can assist in processing and analyzing large volumes of text data, enabling more accurate and rapid communication between the two forces.
- Fostering Better Coordination through Multidomain Command-and-Control Systems: Effective coordination and communication between military domains are critical for joint operations. Multidomain command-and-control systems like Lockheed Martin Multi-Domain Operations Center or the Raytheon Next Generation Command and Control System can enhance situational awareness, improve decision-making, and enable better communication between the US and ROK militaries.
In addition to leveraging existing technologies, future information technology architecture recommendations for facilitating communication between the US and ROK militaries under the Combined Forces Command include:
- Establish a Unified Communication Platform: Develop a secure, unified communication platform that integrates various communication tools, such as CENTRIX, Microsoft Outlook, and unsecured messaging platforms (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Kakao, Signal, Threema, and Naver) that have not been fully optimized with cross military security measures required to facilitate seamless information exchange and collaboration between the US and ROK militaries.
- Create a Joint Information-Sharing Framework: Develop a standardized framework for the classification, storage, and retrieval of information accessible to both US and ROK military personnel. This framework should ensure that relevant information is readily available to all authorized users, regardless of location or organization.
- Implement Cultural Sensitivity and Language Training Programs: Incentivizing Korean language learning opportunities for US military personnel and conducting regular cultural sensitivity training programs for US and ROK military personnel will enhance their understanding of each other’s cultures and communication styles, improving collaboration and reduce misunderstandings.
- Foster Stronger Relationships: Encourage frequent and meaningful interactions between US and ROK military personnel at all levels to build trust, foster mutual understanding, and strengthen relationships. This can be achieved through enhanced combined exercises, personnel exchanges, and shared professional development opportunities.
By implementing these recommendations and integrating technologies, US and ROK military forces can overcome their challenges in communication and interoperability, leading to a more effective and coordinated combined force. Advanced information technology systems, such as AI-based natural language processing and machine learning algorithms, facilitate secure communication and enhance interoperability between the two militaries.
The development and deployment of these systems, along with the establishment of an improved unified communication platform, a joint information-sharing framework, cultural sensitivity training programs, and fostering stronger relationships, will contribute to the improvement of US and ROK military forces’ ability to coordinate operations and respond to security threats. This, in turn, will strengthen the combined force’s overall readiness and effectiveness, ensuring a robust and united front against potential adversaries in the Korean peninsula.
Craig Loughlin is a program manager for the ROK CWMD Readiness Project. He is a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician and foreign military trainer.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Kris Bonet, US Army