For more than half a century there has been the modern military version of a gunfighters’ standoff on the Korean Peninsula. On the northern side of the border is an army of nearly one million with heavy mechanized formations and tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers pointed at Seoul, the capitol of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Seoul is home to 10 million people or 20 percent of South Korea’s population (if you consider the entire Seoul Capital Region, it is 50 percent of its population). On the southern side of the border there is the ROK military of 600,000 and some 28,000 Americans who are part of the U.S. Forces Korea. Doesn’t seem like a stable balance of forces, even before one considers North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.
What provides the balance and deters North Korea is U.S. air and naval power. This point was made very clear a couple of weeks ago when two U.S. B-2 bombers conducted a non-stop practice mission from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri to South Korea and back again. Subsequently, Air Force B-52s out of Guam have been conducting practice missions near South Korea. The U.S. also sent several of its prized F-22 fighters to the peninsula as a reminder to the North that its obsolescent air defense network could be penetrated readily. Despite what seems as a first strike advantage, the North Korean leadership is well aware of the air and naval power that the U.S. could bring to bear relatively rapidly in the event Pyongyang initiated hostilities.
The lessons from Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) are illustrative with respect to what air and naval power can achieve against a Soviet-style conventional military. The Iraqi military in 1991 was very similar in size and composition to the forces North Korea has today. If anything, Baghdad’s military was the more modern of the two. Yet, the coalition’s air armada was able to rapidly seize air dominance and destroy most of Iraq’s fixed military infrastructure and a significant portion of its military assets. This feat was accomplished with only a handful of stealthy aircraft, the F-117, and a limited number of precision munitions. Twelve years later, in OIF, coalition air superiority was such a given that Saddam Hussein ordered his Air Force to bury their surviving aircraft. Moreover, the percentage of ordnance delivered that consisted of so-called “smart bombs” had increased from around 6 percent to nearly 70 percent. The Navy launched some 288 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 1991 and more than 700 in OIF.
Fast forward another decade. The power resident in U.S. air and naval forces has only increased. The U.S. now has some 200 stealthy aircraft that could operate from day one in contested airspace over North Korea. The entire U.S. strategic bomber fleet of more than 100 aircraft, can deliver a range of conventional standoff precision munitions. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fleets of F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 E/F tactical aircraft can deliver a similar suite of munitions. U.S. airborne electronic warfare capabilities have been enhanced by the addition of the EA-18G Growler. Also, the U.S. Navy deploys many hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles, including the new, longer range Block IV, aboard virtually all its surface combatants and attack submarines. During the Libyan campaign, one U.S. submarine fired 90 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. This vast arsenal of aerial platforms and weapons would be able to reach virtually any target in North Korea.
The window is further closing on North Korea’s ability to threaten its neighbors to the south. In this time period, the U.S., Japan and, possibly, South Korea, will acquire the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The advanced KC-46 aerial refueling tanker will enter the U.S. fleet in significant numbers. If defense budgets can be sustained at a reasonable level, the Air Force will begin to acquire a new strategic bomber. Advanced, stealthy, long-range air-delivered weapons will also be developed and deployed. As a consequence, the U.S. ability to hit both harder and faster will increase even as the North’s military power erodes.
In the event of war, Seoul would without question suffer enormous damage and casualties would be high. However, North Korean leaders must be aware that the U.S., together with its allies, has the air and naval power to rapidly achieve air dominance and destroy its conventional forces, military infrastructure and logistics networks. It is the ability to hold at risk those assets which the North values by conventional means that is the bedrock of deterrence on the Korean peninsula.
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