(ATTN: UPDATES with air drills in last 2 paras)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is leading the entirety of a major combined military exercise with the United States for the first time, Seoul officials said Wednesday, in a sign of progress in the allies' plan for the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON).
Gen. Ahn Byung-Seok, the deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC), is leading the ongoing Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) exercise -- a venue for a key test of Seoul's capabilities to retake the OPCON from Washington.
In 2019, the South partially led an exercise with the U.S. But this year, it is to command combined forces during the whole duration of the ongoing exercise, according to the officials.
Ahn has taken the commanding role, albeit in an exercise, as the two countries are conducting the full operational capability (FOC) assessment, the second part of the three-stage program to vet the South's capabilities to lead combined forces.
The program is one of numerous steps that the allies are required to take to achieve the "conditions-based" OPCON transition. Other conditions include the South's strike and air defense capabilities and the regional security environment conducive to the handover.
CFC Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera stressed the importance of the ongoing exercise in light of the allies' efforts toward the OPCON transfer.
"This is significant because for the first time ever, the CFC deputy commander will take the lead as the future CFC commander," LaCamera was quoted by his office as saying.
The South handed over operational control over its troops to the U.S.-led U.N. Command during the 1950-53 Korean War. It was then transferred to the U.S.-led CFC when the command was launched in 1978.
Seoul retook peacetime OPCON in 1994, but Washington keeps wartime OPCON. The wartime OPCON transfer was previously set for 2015 but was postponed, as the allies agreed in 2014 to a conditions-based handover amid North Korea's rising nuclear and missile threats.
The UFS that kicked off on Monday is set to run through Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, Seoul's Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup led a tabletop exercise aimed at deterring and countering threats from North Korea's nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It involved officials from the foreign and interior ministries, and other related agencies.
Lee stressed the need for cooperation with the U.S. in ensuring the credibility of America's extended deterrence -- its stated commitment to using a whole range of its military assets, including nuclear arms, to defend its ally, his office said.
He also highlighted his priority on deterring the North's possible use of WMDs while discussing various steps to take in case threats of the North's potential nuclear use emerge.
As part of the UFS, the South and the U.S. are also conducting the three-day Buddy Wing air exercise set to run through Thursday.
Some 10 warplanes, including the U.S. Air Force's F-16 jets and the South's KF-16s, have been mobilized for the exercise aimed at enhancing combined air operational capabilities, Seoul officials said.
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