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(LEAD) Defense chief unveils plans to reform military, enhance interoperability
SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin unveiled a set of sweeping military reform packages Tuesday to enhance the interoperability of the armed forces and increase firepower in response to North Korea's deadly provocations last year.

   The 73-point reform measures call for an early introduction of spy drones and stealth fighters, a structural overhaul in the authority of top commanders and a gradual reduction in general-grade officers to make the Army more efficient.

   "The command structure of top military brass will be revamped to improve the interoperability of the armed forces," Kim told reporters. "Enhancing the interoperability is a barometer of an advanced military."

   The military has been under growing calls to improve the interoperability among the Army, Navy and Air Force to better respond to provocations by North Korea, which torpedoed a South Korean warship in March and bombarded a southern island in November. The two attacks killed a total of 50 South Koreans, including two civilians.

   Under the plans, Kim said his ministry will allow the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to take responsibility for managing military personnel of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin speaks during a press conference on March 8. (Yonhap)

Currently, the JCS chairman has operational command over all military branches, but no power to manage military personnel. Each chief of staff of the three branches has the authority to manage their own troops. The lack of authority in personnel management has long been cited as one of the major factors hindering interoperability of the troops.

   The ministry plans to reduce the number of general-grade officers by 15 percent to some 370 by 2020, in order to make the nation's Army-dominated military more efficient.

   By June this year, the military will form a task force for the reduction of general-grade officers and start cutting them from November, ministry officials said.

   Instead, the ministry will bolster sea and air defense power, which are currently supported by U.S. troops stationed in the South and overseas.

   Seoul will purchase high-altitude spy drones and stealth fighter jets and deploy them earlier than an initial deployment year of 2015 to strengthen deterrence against North Korea, Kim said.

   "The aim is to proactively deter current threats posed by the enemy rather than cope with potential threats in the future," Kim said.

   As part of the efforts, the military will acquire advanced artillery-detecting radar systems and precision-guided weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) to neutralize the North's artillery pieces hidden in mountain caves, the ministry said.

   Hundreds of the North's long-range artillery and multiple-launch rockets were deployed along the border near the South.

   Those missiles, capable of raining down shells and rockets on the South Korean capital of Seoul, are the most formidable threat for the South's defense.

   "With the proposed plans, it will take one or two days for our military to destroy North Korea's long-range artillery pieces, from the current one week," a military official said on the condition of anonymity.

   South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

   To beef up the defense of military computer networks, the defense chief said he will reinforce manpower and capability of the Cyber Warfare Command.

   "By strengthening the structure and capacity of the Cyber Warfare Command, the military aims to improve its defense readiness against cyber threats," Kim said.

   Last week, Web sites of about 40 key government agencies and financial institutions came under a cyber attack. Although no serious damage has been reported from the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack and it's still unknown who was behind the attack, the military raised its alert level on cyber warfare readiness by one notch to the fourth-highest level.

   It is widely believed that North Korea operates a cyber warfare unit aimed at hacking into South Korean networks to collect secret information and disrupt service.

   As for a new command structure responsible for defending five islands near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea, the ministry will deploy more troops and weapons to systematically watch North Korean forces and strike if necessary. The division-sized command will be established in June.

   "We will increase weapons and troops on the Yellow Sea islands to a considerable level, and the operational range of the new command will include the origin of provocation by the enemy," Kim said.