Few outside of close circles in the military are aware of the hidden strategic value of U.S. troops being in South Korea.

An Al Jazeera article brought into question the necessity of the U.S. military continuing to have such a strong presence in South Korea. The writer points out that the war ended in a stalemate over 60 years ago, and is costing American taxpayers millions of dollars each year. He also points out that South Korea could easily defend itself, and could shoulder the financial burden given the country’s $1.13 trillion GDP.

One source in the article states, “America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to U.S. interests everywhere.”

They argue that the U.S. essentially has a large enough presence in the Pacific, Central Asia, and the Middle East, so there is no real need for our resources to stay in South Korea. However, they are looking past one important fact about the significance of our presence there, and the hidden strategic importance that location holds.

A recent earthquake and tsunami warning for Japan has renewed concerns for military communications within the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM).

When the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the world was focused on rescue and recovery efforts for those affected. A small group in the U.S. military saw things a different way. Data communications, an invaluable tool for commanders, between Afghanistan and the continental United States (CONUS) were critically affected by the earthquake.

There are four large data cables that run under the ocean from the U.S. mainland leading to Hawaii, to Guam, to Japan, and finally to South Korea. From there, a single data cable/pipe (600 MBps speed) runs to Afghanistan and provides primary incoming and outgoing communications for all coalition troops. There are, of course, satellite communications available, but their bandwidth is limited in comparison and are not meant to carry the full load of the traffic that travels back and forth.

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As a result of the earth shifting on the Japan mainland (it actually shifted the ground 3.5 meters in that area), three of the four cables snapped under the pressure, effectively halting a large amount of communications between commanders from each continent. Cables 1 (1 GBps), 2 (5 GBps), and 3 (5GBps) snapped, leaving the southernmost cable 4 (1GBps) intact. It had just enough slack running along the ocean floor to withstand the shock.

With only a 1 GB (gigabyte) connection remaining, U.S. communications were hanging by a thread, or rather a cable—cable 4. PACOM called on U.S. military resources in South Korea to come up with a solution for a redundant connection.

Two satellites (500MBps each) were already in South Korea that were configured to transmit traffic one way. The team was able to reconfigure them so that one was for incoming traffic, and the other for outgoing. This configuration supported U.S. troops in Afghanistan for a month, and gave a backup in the event that something happened to cable 4 anywhere between Korea and the U.S. mainland. The impact of cable 4 going out would have meant all primary data communication for U.S. commanders would have been halted, resulting in a logistical nightmare for troops.

Not only is there strategic value to a U.S. presence in the geographic region of South Korea for troop response times, it is actually a major key in the success of U.S. communications for all of Asia and the Middle East. We are not only there to support South Korea, we are also there to look out for our own best interests.