Amid the hubub over former SecDef Robert Gates’s new memoir–and disclosures that Hillary and Barack Obama staked out national security positions based purely on political concerns–comes this rather surprising announcement from the Pentagon::

“The U.S. is sending an additional Army combat force of 800 soldiers to South Korea with tanks and armored troop carriers.

A brief Pentagon announcement said the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, will deploy to two locations in South Korea on Feb. 1.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said the increase in troop strength and firepower had been in the planning stages for more than a year and is part of a “rebalance” of U.S. military power toward the Asia-Pacific region.

According to the military, the battalion will spend the next year in South Korea, reinforcing the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, which has been stationed there for decades.  The deployment will allow soldiers to train alongside their American and ROK counterparts, in terrain they would defend against a North Korean invasion of the south.

The announcement is surprising for several of reasons; first, it came with no advance notice.  Army officials revealed the news with very little fanfare, and there were no advance leaks that the deployment was coming–something that’s fairly rare in this age of social media and 24-hour cable news. 

Secondly, the timetable for this move is fairly quick for what is (technically) a non-combat deployment.  The first elements of the battalion will begin moving to Korea in only three weeks, and it is expected that all troops–along with their amored vehicles and support equipment–will be in place by late March.  Residents of Killeen, Texas, the community adjacent to Fort Hood, can expect to see a lot of C-17 and charter flights out of the local airport (which serves military and civilian traffic) in the weeks to come.

Thirdly, the deployment comes amid renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  A few weeks back, a senior ROK official postulated that chances for a North Korean provocation would remain very “high” until the early spring, a period that coincides with the peak of the Winter Training Cycle, the period when military activity in the DPRK reaches its annual peak.  So far this winter, most of the attention in Korea has been focused on Kim Jong-un’s “purge” of senior party leaders, and the latest round of “basketball diplomacy” with Dennis Rodman. 

But the sudden move of the calvary unit to Korea suggests that something else may be afoot.  Has training surged during this WTC?  Are there indications that the new DPRK tyrant is preparing to make good on past threats against South Korea?  The WTC has been an annual event for more than 50 years, yet it has rarely prompted deployment of U.S. ground forces, except during times of escalating tensions, such as the winter of 1968, when North Korea seized the spy ship USS Pueblo and detained the crew for nearly a year.

And, while the forces sent to Korea during the Pueblo crisis eventually returned home, it looks like the new deployment will become a long-term commitment.  When the 1/12th returns to Fort Hood in early 2015, their tanks, IFVs and other equipment will remain behind, to be used by other units that will pick up the rotation in the future.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the Army has more flexibility for deployments like the one starting in Korea.  The mission also allows the service to claim a (slightly) greater role in the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia, which is based largely on air and sea power.  Rotating battalions to Korea reminds political leaders that land units are also a key part of the Asia equation, and could provide a case against future cuts in troop strength.

It should be noted that the 1/12 is not the first stateside unit to deploy to Korea.  The 4th Squadron, 6th Calvary regiment deployed to the peninsula next fall and like the Fort Hood unit, they will leave their equipment in place, indicating that deployment will also become a permanent rotation.  In fact, the Army views Korea as an ideal location for training and experimentation in the years ahead.  The service recently concluded a field test of MRAP vehicles in Korea and decided that “standard” armored vehicles (such as the M1 Abrams tank and the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle) were better suited for Korea’s rugged terrain.  The latest deployment will add about 40 tanks and 40 IFVs to the U.S. Army arsenal in South Korea.

Rotating units to Korea will also allow the the service to add more combat punch to existing brigade combat teams (BCTs) in 2 ID, which currently have only two battalions per brigade.  The Army is currently in the process of reducing the number of brigades, but preserving some maneuver battalions by adding them to remaining BCTs.  Three of the four brigade combat teams assigned to 2 ID are based at Fort Lewis, Washington, so the rotations will give commanders more assets that are immediately available, should Kim Jong-un decide to attack across the DMZ.   
That’s why this latest deployment strikes us as more than a bit curious.  Sure, the Army has plenty of budgetary and force structure reasons for rotating units to Korea, but the announcement–and the actual deployment–could have been delayed for several months, if not a year.  There is little doubt the Korean peninsula has become less stable over the past 18 months, and that trend is evident elsewhere in northeast Asia, where China and Japan are bickering over disputed islands, while Beijing flexes its growing military muscle.  In that sort of environment, it makes a lot of sense to add a couple of battalions to our ground forces in South Korea, just in case.