Gen. Robert B. Abrams, nominated to become commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told a panel of senators on Tuesday that the pause in U.S.-South Korea military exercises could eventually hurt troop readiness and would be a top priority under his watch.
Abrams, who could also be selected to lead United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command in Korea if confirmed, made the comments during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to vet him for these jobs.
The joint exercises were stopped following the June summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, a move that drew criticism that the lack of training would hurt military readiness on the peninsula.
“That’s hard to judge, and to be honest, if confirmed, this will be one of my top priorities when I get on the ground… to do my own personal assessment,” Abrams, who now leads U.S. Army Forces Command, told the committee. “I know from my 36-plus years of service about what a shelf life is of readiness of our forces, to be able to conduct certain activities. But I need to apply that judgement based on what I assess when I get on the ground.”
Abrams, who has commanded U.S. Army Forces Command since August 2015, was nominated this year to command U.S. Forces Korea, replacing Gen. Vincent Brooks, who is departing the post after two years.
Abrams has been vocal that a pause in the joint exercises on the Korean peninsula could eventually hurt readiness.
“I think that there was certainly degradation to the readiness of the force for the combined forces. That’s a key exercise to maintain continuity and to continue to practice our interoperability,” Abrams said of the pause. “And so there was a slight deviation, but I have great confidence” in the mitigation plan until the next series of exercises are planned.
Abrams said he has seen some of the mitigation plan, which includes participation at smaller training exercises, but not at the same scope of the large-scale ones.
Following the June 12 summit in Singapore, Trump stunned U.S. lawmakers, allies and Pentagon officials with an announcement halting military exercises with U.S. ally South Korea.
The United States and South Korea conduct two major sets of military exercises each year — Foal Eagle and Key Resolve in the spring and Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which was slated for August. They also hold smaller training exercises throughout the year.
“While tensions on the Korean peninsula has been reduced since the Singapore summit, the situation remains precarious and dangerous,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking Democrat for the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Abrams. “Despite President Trump’s assertions to the contrary, there remains a significant military threat to the United States and its allies.”
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., questioned Abrams on how long it could take for the lack of training to have an impact on troop readiness.
“I’m sure you realize a large-scale exercise is really necessary in order to fully rehearse these plans,” Peters said. But “how long and how many cycles of exercises can be skipped before you really start seeing a significant decline in readiness?”
Abrams, a 1982 West Point graduate who was commissioned as an armor officer and has commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, referred Peters to his response that he needed to be on the ground to know.
He also lauded the pause, for now.
“I think the suspension of the exercise this past August and September, I would say was a prudent risk if we’re willing to make the effort to change the relationship with [North Korea],” Abrams said earlier in the hearing. “Something has to adjust in my view to be able to start to build trust and confidence as we move forward in the relationship.”
Abrams has led Army Forces Command, the largest organization in the service, since August 2015 and in that role is responsible for ensuring combat soldiers are trained and prepared to deploy.
Abrams’ other previous assignments included serving as the senior military adviser to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He commanded the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, including a deployment to Afghanistan. Before that, he commanded the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
“General Abrams, you have been nominated to lead our forces in Korea at a time of critical importance to our national security when it comes to North Korea,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who was leading his first official hearing Tuesday as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, following Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who died in August following a 13-month battle with brain cancer.
Abrams is the third member of his immediate family to become a four-star Army general. His father was Creighton Abrams Jr., who commanded all American forces in Vietnam and later served as the Army’s chief of staff. His brother John Abrams, who died in August, commanded the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command before retiring in 2002. Another of Abrams’ brothers, Creighton Abrams III, attained the rank of brigadier general in the Army.
Recently, Abrams made headlines for his role in serving as the convening authority over then-Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s court-martial in the fall on desertion and misbehavior charges. In June, Abrams approved Bergdahl’s sentence handed down in November of a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to private, and forfeiture of $10,000 in pay after the soldier pleaded guilty, admitting he left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 before being captured by the Taliban.
Abrams is well known in the Army for his use of Twitter to interact with soldiers on a range of issues.
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