'War Games' Trump Said Were Too Expensive Cost Less Than a Fighter Jet

U.S. and South Korean soldiers participate in military exercises in Gyeonggi province, South Korea, last year.

U.S. and South Korean soldiers participate in military exercises in Gyeonggi province, South Korea, last year.


Photo:

JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

By

At the Singapore summit with

Kim Jong Un

last month, President

Donald Trump

said he was canceling military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, because they were provocative to North Korea and “tremendously expensive.”

The cost? According to a new Pentagon analysis prompted by Mr. Trump’s statement, the military exercises known as Freedom Guardian, which would have begun in August, would have set the U.S. military back $14 million.

It is a fraction of the military’s annual budget of $700 billion, which increased 15.5% for the fiscal year 2018, and is less than the cost of one new fighter plane. That has prompted some to say that the money saved isn’t worth the impact on military readiness and that the military may have to spend money in other ways to ensure pilots and sailors receive the real-time experience the exercises offer.

“It’s penny wise and pound foolish,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985.

“It doesn’t save you as much as you think and may cost you more,” he said.

The White House didn’t provide further comment.

Others say Mr. Trump’s focus on the cost of exercises has had the benefit of forcing the Pentagon to assess the price and make it public. The military conducts hundreds of exercises a year. Some are tabletop exercises that use minimal U.S. military equipment and stress leadership instead. Others can involve tens of thousands of troops. Among the largest military exercises are Korea Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, monthlong activities that consisted this year of 11,500 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean troops. The Pentagon said its major exercises can cost as much as $20 million a year.

The last time the Pentagon talked about the costs of an exercise was when its budget was under sequestration in 2013, largely to show how the decision to cut its budget affected military readiness.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers watch from an observation post during a joint live firing drill at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in South Korea last year.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers watch from an observation post during a joint live firing drill at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in South Korea last year.


Photo:

jung yeon-je/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, said the military hasn’t had to calculate the true cost of exercises in the past.

“The president may have a point, because if you can’t put a specific price tag on it then it means no one has done the cost-benefit analysis to know whether or not an exercise is worth it,” Mr. Harrison said. “It would behoove [the Defense Department] to track these costs better and report them publicly if the exercises are in fact worth the costs.”

At the Pentagon, Mr. Trump’s focus on the cost of exercises marked a new turn. “We weren’t being asked to justify the value or the return on investment on exercises like Freedom Guardian,” one official explained, referring to the joint annual U.S.-South Korean exercise.

Pentagon officials also note the U.S. retains the ability to reinstate exercises with South Korea if the White House decided that North Korea’s leader, Mr. Kim, reneged on an agreement on denuclearization.

“We will execute in accordance with the directives from our national leadership, so we will be prepared for whatever our national leadership decides is necessary,” said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.

So far, U.S. military officials have said that if suspending the exercises could lead North Korea to denuclearize, that was a risk worth taking—for now. But they have also warned that U.S. military readiness will drop if such exercises aren’t conducted for more than a year. Pyongyang has appeared unimpressed by the cancellation of exercises.

After Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo

visited Pyongyang on July 7, North Korea issued a statement describing the decision as a “highly reversible step which could be resumed anytime” as the U.S. military presence would remain intact.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at Nancy.Youssef@wsj.com and Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com

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