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Korean War II Not Easy As It Looks

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The Army has war gamed a conflict to secure a failed North Korea. It would not be a cakewalk.

Defense News (“U.S. Army Learns Hard Lessons in N. Korea-like War Game“):

It took 56 days for the U.S. to flow two divisions’ worth of soldiers into the failed nuclear-armed state of “North Brownland” and as many as 90,000 troops to deal with the country’s nuclear stockpiles, a major U.S. Army war game concluded this winter.

The Unified Quest war game conducted this year by Army planners posited the collapse of a nuclear-armed, xenophobic, criminal family regime that had lorded over a closed society and inconveniently lost control over its nukes as it fell. Army leaders stayed mum about the model for the game, but all indications — and maps seen during the game at the Army War College — point to North Korea.

While American forces who staged in a neighboring friendly country to the south eventually made it over the border into North Brownland, they encountered several problems for which they struggled to find solutions. One of the first was that a large number of nuclear sites were in populated areas, so they had to try to perform humanitarian assistance operations while conducting combined arms maneuver and operations.

One way of doing this was to “use humanitarian assistance as a form of maneuver,” Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, director of the Army’s Concept Development and Learning Directorate, told reporters. The Army dropped humanitarian supplies a short distance from populated areas, drawing the population away from the objective sites, he explained.

Many of the problems encountered were hashed out with Army leaders at a Senior Leader Seminar on March 19 at Fort McNair in Washington. The event—which included the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, and the vice chief, Gen. John Campbell, along with a collection of three- and four-star generals — was off the record, but under terms of the agreement that allowed a handful of reporters to cover the event, unattributed quotes can be reported.

I commend the remainder of Paul McLeary’s excellent reporting on this to your attention. The bottom line, though, is that logistics and intelligence would be major obstacles to the mission, along with the aforementioned civilian population.

To the extent we’ve thought about war with North Korea in recent decades, the focus has been on a re-enactment of the first conflict: a Northern invasion of our allies in the South. That would be a suicide mission for Pyongyang. The much superior ROK force could repel that invasion easily, with a little logistics and ISR support from Uncle Sam’s finest.

But going in to a failed North to secure their weapons stockpiles and ensure a smooth transition to a presumable re-unification would be a challenge of a different order of magnitude.

I had to laugh at this:

One lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforced by the Unified Quest game, was that “we’re not going to fight a pure military war again,” one four-star general opined. Instead, being successful in conflict will require a variety of solutions requiring cultural knowledge, political acumen and other intelligence activities.

The reason we’ve been on a seven decade losing streak, despite vastly superior military power, is that we keep “learning” that lesson. Aside from perhaps the World Wars, all of those things have been crucial to every single conflict we’ve fought  going back to the colonial period.

via Diana Wueger

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m at a loss to understand the objective of the mission in this war game. Secure the nuclear sites from what? Rather than “North Brownland” let’s drop the mask and talk about North Korea. Who would be pursuing the nuclear weapons and what would they do with them when they got them? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep whoever got the nuclear weapons from doing anything with them than preventing them from seizing them?

    Wouldn’t the main interested party in controlling the situation be South Korea, followed by China and then Japan? It seems to me that South Korea is enormously better equipped for dealing with such a situation than we could ever be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  2. anjin-san says:

    I don’t recall anyone saying it looked easy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Rob in CT says:

    As Mr. Schuler points out, the party that has the most at stake here is South Korea, our ally. Then China, then Japan. Perhaps then us.

    Anything we do wrt to NK has to be run past the South Koreans, no?

    One lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforced by the Unified Quest game, was that “we’re not going to fight a pure military war again,” one four-star general opined. Instead, being successful in conflict will require a variety of solutions requiring cultural knowledge, political acumen and other intelligence activities

    Stipulating this is true, by far and away the biggest advantage one could have is to have full SK buy-in to whatever you’re going to do (preferably, the SKs lead, we support). Even then, there’s also no way around sorting some things out with China as well.

    The collapse of NK is a potential nightmare scenario for all concerned. I’d expect the Chinese have at least thought about it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    That would be a suicide mission for Pyongyang. The much superior ROK force could repel that invasion easily, with a little logistics and ISR support from Uncle Sam’s finest.

    Did they say where the new capitol of South Korea would be located?

    @Dave Schuler:

    Who would be pursuing the nuclear weapons and what would they do with them when they got them?

    I suspect they are worried about rogue military units, tho just exactly what they would do with them, I am not sure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rob in CT:

    The collapse of NK is a potential nightmare scenario for all concerned. I’d expect the Chinese have at least thought about it.

    They’ve thought about it alright, and it scares them to death.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Bill Sikes says:

    The longer we wait the worse it will be. North Korea and Iran must be dealt with militarily. Our pollicy seems to be wait to be attacked then retaliate.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 21

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    @Bill Sikes: We’re supposed to support two wars on your say-so?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  8. Dave says:

    The one thing overlooked in this whole scenario is money. Give the population food and spending money and pacifying them would probably be easier than it seems at face value. I am in no way saying it will be simple, but to a starving populace, food can go a long way into building trust. I agree with the comments above that ROK should take the lead on this if it were to happen. Also, South Koreans have been taxing themselves to pay for some of the reunification costs, when it eventually happens.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. matt bernius says:

    @Bill Sikes:
    And in answer to a previous posting about what have we learned from the Iraq war, the answer for a lot of people is apparently “nothing.”

    @Dave Schuler:
    I’d say that South Korea has the most at stake because it would most likely be the subject of the attack or fallout (literal and figurative) from a military campaign. However, it seems to me that China is only slightly behind South Korea and might even have more to lose in the long run.

    And while China clearly wants to avoid a radical solution to the problem of North Korea (or rather North Korean immigrants), China still has everything to lose and nothing to gain from a North Korea with advanced Nuclear capabilities.

    The real question, is not whether the US is willing to go to war with North Korea. Is China willing to go to war with North Korea.

    And given how tied the Chinese and South Korean economies are, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which China benefits from North Korea going to war with South Korea (or Japan or the US). Ditto China and Japan and China and the US.

    Any significant military (let alone nuclear action) taken by North Korea would most likely greatly destabilize the Chinese Economy. Given that fact, beyond Saber rattling, this is as much China’s problem as it is ours. And, at least for the moment, while China doesn’t want to absorb NK’s immigrants, I think that they would opt to do that over having their economy gutted.

    So again, my bet is that NK will not, in the foreseeable future, achieve the requisite missile technology needed to make it a true global threat. And the ones who will actually stop it are the Chinese.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @matt bernius:

    So again, my bet is that NK will not, in the foreseeable future, achieve the requisite missile technology needed to make it a true global threat. And the ones who will actually stop it are the Chinese.

    I keep hoping for that as all the other possibilities seem so much worse, but the Chinese seem to have no heart for it either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. legion says:

    The reason we’ve been on a seven decade losing streak, despite vastly superior military power, is that we keep “learning” that lesson.

    This +1000. I wish our so-called ‘ruling class’ had even a fraction of this common sense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. legion says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Wouldn’t it be easier to keep whoever got the nuclear weapons from doing anything with them than preventing them from seizing them?

    That depends entirely on how good our knowledge is the location & condition of NK’s stockpiles. If we have a pretty high confidence of where their weapons are, it might very well be worth a physical invasion to keep them in those locations. If rogue military units or foreign powers got their hands on them, we might never be able to safely account for them again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Bill Sikes:

    The longer we wait the worse it will be. North Korea and Iran must be dealt with militarily.

    By you and what army? Do you even have half a clue that these are not just military problems? That the economic consequences of a conflict in either case would be devastating to the world’s economies?

    Or are you, like so many others, just talking tough on the internet because it makes you feel better about….. Now, now, be nice Tom.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  14. The linked article doesn’t make it clear if the potential actions of China were included in the war game scenario. That would seem to me to be a major flaw if they weren’t

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  15. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Might well be the involvement of Chinese military backing of the DRPK was deemed to preclude the whole idea of attempting to occupy NK.

    China is very unhappy with the DPRK these days. That they might not interfere, they might even assist, with a US effort to pacify the place after a DRPK initiated war. Seems a scenario plausible enough for contingency study and planning now, anyway. This Kim the III, by pissing off China, can’t be assumed to be a “rational actor”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. grumpy realist says:

    Rather than dropping bombs, dropping many bags of wheat and rice might be better….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. @Dazedandconfused:

    The signals coming out of China right now indicate that Beijing is becoming increasingly frustrated by Little Kim’s actions and saber rattling. Their patience surely has its limits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. anjin-san says:

    a seven decade losing streak

    Defense contractors have been on a seven decade winning streak. We were warned by our greatest military hero, and we chose not to listen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yup. This might be a “After you!” “No! I insist, after you!!” nation building project if it melts down. The Chinese don’t want to take it over and neither do we. I would imagine the Pentagon is building evidence against any “light footprint” ideas that might crop up in a few skulls on the hill.

    There was a report the Chinese cut off the oil in February, and they apparently did. This has been shown to be almost typical for that month though. It happens about every other year. Pipes may a bit too cold and costly to heat. I think the one sure thing about it is that the Chinese wished it spread in the region they were cutting oil. Indicates a desire to undermine this new Dear Leader, perhaps.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. An Interested Party says:

    Our pollicy seems to be wait to be attacked then retaliate.

    Umm, exactly how would North Korea and/or Iran attack us…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Dave: From an article that I saw in the Korea Herald last year sometime (don’t have the link) current estimates of reunification run upwards of $1.6 trillion in near term outlays. Long term costs of reunification include effects of currency devaluation and long-term employment disruptions. This is not Germany that we are talking about, and the SK government has been forced to consider that reunification will only be feasible a decade or three down range.

    And even then, it might require some sort of sea change in SK governing style that would make China feel less “surrounded.” The conventional wisdom over here is that China is not amenable to a “Western-style” democracy (which SK is) on its immediate eastern border.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. mannning says:

    It is apparent that the SK government forces would be first in battle against the NK. Any massive tank attack by the NK on SK would be totally shattered by the use of standoff CBU-105s and CALCMs from both US B-52 and B-2 bombers and SK aircraft as well. Longer range missiles such as Tomahawk would devastate tank parks, airfields, aircraft, barracks and transports. The air battles would be fierce also, as the US would deploy F-22s to clear the skies, probably along with the older F-15s and F-16s, and perhaps F-35s as well, depending on the timing, and eventually the FA-18s from carriers.

    The same counter would hold were the SK and US forces to penetrate NK. The NK would be denuded of their main military hardware in a day or two should they come out to fight, or a bit longer if they stayed in emplaced positions. No NK troop movements by truck would survive either. Still, there would be fierce fighting by NK troops even if they are bereft of most of their aircraft, missile launchers, artillery, tanks, trucks, and armored personnel carriers. But they would lose to the SK and US armored forces rather rapidly, I believe, once our forces are on the ground and ready.

    So the SK/US ends up with a conquered NK and captured nuclear weapons and missiles, or their beginnings. What does China do then? Will they stay quiet? Will they invade NK to throw the SK and US out, or even continue to penetrate SK, as they did way back when in the 1950s? Does anyone really know?

    Again, we seem to have a conflict situation where the NK enemy has the option of a first step, and that step may lead to a far greater conflict in the region.

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