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Projecting Airpower from East Asia: A Nevada Lawyer's Experience in Japan and Korea

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The Panmunjom Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea
On December 19, 2011, North Korea announced its “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, had died. I happened to be in Seoul at the time visiting my wife’s South Korean relatives. As we listened to the news reports, I asked a cousin whether he was afraid of the security situation following the dictator’s death. “No,” he answered. “Because the U.S. military holds the keys and will control what happens.”
Later, standing in the tense Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone, I felt the imminence of that responsibility. The tranquil, uninhabited propaganda village I could see through the telescope was belied by acts of North Korean aggression recounted in the visitors’ museum. The fourth largest military in the world is merely taking a pause, an Armistice, from war, while using its time to develop a nuclear weapons
program, test ballistic missiles, stockpile chemical weapons and train its extensive special operations force. I have spent four of my first five years as a Nevada lawyer in East Asia protecting U.S. interests in the Pacific and ensuring we are ready to defend our allies from North Korean aggression. The Demilitarized Zone is a stark reminder that North Korea prepares for war daily, devoting its full national energy toward sustaining its “military-first revolution.” Thankfully, however, they are not the only ones preparing. Just days before Kim Jong-il’s death, the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa Air Base in Japan, to which I was assigned as Assistant Staff Judge Advocate, validated its combat preparedness through an Operational Readiness Inspection. The 35th Fighter Wing’s mission is to provide a forward presence from northern Japan, and their “Wild Weasel” F-16s could be tasked to be the “First In” to any conflict in the Pacific theater. Therefore, the inspection evaluated the wing’s ability to transition from peacetime readiness to generating combatready aircraft and deploying forces and cargo. It also assessed the wing’s ability to survive in a contingency environment while employing combat power to meet wartime taskings.
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Judge Advocate operations are interwoven into each of these aspects. As the wing practiced deploying for war, Airmen relied on the legal office to provide wills, simple trusts, advanced medical directives and financial powers of attorney ensuring their estates were in order and that their families would be able to manage affairs in their absence. We also advised commanders on personnel issues, including conscientious objectors, immunization refusal and religious accommodations. Knowing our wing was practicing a deployment to the Republic of Korea, we researched international law on air operations and the status of forces agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces in Korea to ensure we structured operations to comply with relevant law. We practiced, for example, a scenario in which an aircraft landed at its destination and customs officials demanded to board to search the cargo. We prepared a response explaining that the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation provides state aircraft with immunity from foreign boarding, search, inspection and taxation. Additionally, the status of forces agreement exempts military cargo from customs examination and allows the U.S. armed forces to import all materials, supplies and equipment for official use free from customs duties and other charges. During war, Judge Advocates help commanders at the tactical level execute the mission while conforming to the Law of Armed Conflict and Rules of Engagement. We also provide contingency contracting support to help the wing quickly purchase needed supplies, contract for necessary services and terminate non-essential functions, all while adhering to the Federal Acquisition Regulation that is often ill-suited to meet time-sensitive needs in a contingency environment. Even something as seemingly simple as transferring jet fuel or bombs to a coalition partner involves legal counsel on the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, and acquisition and cross-servicing agreements with that country. Things become even more complex at the operational level. Recently, I served as a legal advisor on the combat operations floor of the Air Operations Center at Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea. We participated in an intense multi-national command-andcontrol exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian. This annual computer-assisted simulation exercise enhances the readiness of Republic of Korea, U.S. and U.N.
sending state forces as we practice realistic scenarios to ensure we are fully prepared to defend the Republic of Korea. At the operational level of war, Judge Advocates help draft, revise and interpret the Rules of Engagement that guide pilots in the air and airmen on the ground. Rules of Engagement are a multi-disciplinary tool used by commanders to direct the conditions under which force may be used. They incorporate customary international law, U.N. resolutions and guidance, status of forces agreements, treaty obligations, host nation laws and U.S. domestic laws. They also integrate national command strategy, sensitive political relations and operational objectives. During Ulchi Freedom Guardian, I also supported targeting and weaponeering. Targeting is the process of selecting and prioritizing targets, which are then weaponeered by estimating the quantity, type and implementation of weapons necessary to achieve the objective. When reviewing proposed targets, I analyzed the military necessity for using force against the target, evaluated whether the use of force was proportional to the military value of the target and ensured that the method of force was weaponeered to minimize civilian casualties and property damage.
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The author with his wife Sarah in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area of the DMZ
For example, military planners may determine there is high strategic value to destroying an urban commandand-control center. Judge Advocates review the target choice and its surrounding area to consider whether the collateral damage, a civilian medical facility or school for example, may be unacceptably high proportional to the strategic value of the target. This requires both a deep understanding of the law and an intimate familiarity with military capabilities and objectives. Through preparation and practice, we develop the judgment to give on-time, ontarget advice in the most hectic of circumstances. During the two-week exercise, we produced and executed more than 8,000 such missions. As a student at the Boyd School of Law, I loved studying international law, but never imagined I would have the opportunity to practice it. Now, I do not just practice international law, but practice law internationally and with international implications. I am constantly challenged by the breadth of the task and energized by the importance of the mission. North Korea may menacingly prepare just north of the Demilitarized Zone, but I, a Nevada lawyer, am proud to stand with 28,000 U.S. forces on the south side of the line ready to protect U.S. interests and defend our allies.
CHRISTOPHER STEIN is the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, 8th Fighter Wing, Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea. He helps lead a staff of 11 attorneys, paralegals and support personnel providing full-spectrum legal counsel to more than 20 subordinate and tenant units and more than 3,100 personnel. Stein graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology before completing his Juris Doctor at the William S. Boyd School of Law. He received his commission through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
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