The chance exists that the Korean peninsula will be engulfed in war for the first time in nearly 60 years. North Korea’s deliberate sinking of a South Korean warship may have lit the fuse. In response, quite naturally, the Republic of Korea has cut off economic relations with its northern neighbor and called on Pyongyang to apologize. The United States will be seeking a U.N. resolution imposing additional sanctions on the North. In response, the North has placed its military on alert and is threatening to initiate hostilities if it, the aggressor, is subjected to any punishment for its transgression.
If the history of relations with North Korea is a predictor, war on the Korean peninsula is unlikely. This history has the North using violence to press its financial and economic interests and its victims, including the United States, after a moment of finger wagging and a lot of strong talk, basically engage the regime in the North in new rounds of negotiations. However, sometimes even the best laid plans by demented dictators run awry. The result then is war.
If war comes in Korea, will the U.S. military be prepared? It is a military that has expended enormous energy, huge amounts of treasure, way too much precious blood and nearly nine years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the senior leadership has had virtually no time to think about or practice the higher arts of combined arms combat against a well-armed, well-organized foe. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Conway, has lamented for several years now that his Marines have been unable to practice amphibious operations. The Army has been using its training centers to prepare brigades heading for Iraq and Afghanistan for the challenges of irregular warfare. It has been a long time since anyone in the Army practices for a combined-arms operation. The Air Force has invested in a generation of unmanned aerial systems for surveillance purposes that will be sitting ducks in the intense air defense environment over North Korea. The Navy alone may be able to handle the mission, particularly given its additional investments in its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system with the Standard Missile.
There is little doubt that South Korea and its allies, most importantly the United States, could eventually defeat North Korea. But the challenge today would be greater than in the past. Even if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had ended yesterday, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will need at least two years of peace to reset itself for another conflict, and even then only if it gets billions of dollars to repair and refurbish damaged and worn out equipment. With two conflicts ongoing and the military trying to withdraw from Iraq while swinging forces and equipment into Afghanistan, it is not clear how swiftly the U.S. would be able to reinforce its 28,000 troops in Korea.
This means that the U.S. would have to rely on air and sea power. Suddenly all those so-called Cold War relics such as aircraft carriers, Aegis cruisers and destroyers, B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and the much maligned F-22 stealth fighter would play a central role in war.
North Korea is perhaps the quintessential hybrid threat that defense analysts today speak so much about. Its capabilities range from nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, millions of infantrymen, hundreds of aircraft (virtually all obsolete but most in working order) and a special operations command of over 100,000. In the last Korean War, northern forces engaged in guerrilla activities throughout the peninsula. This time, Pyongyang might even resort to terrorist attacks in the United States or along the supply lines from the U.S. homeland to the war zone. This kind of war would be a test of the U.S. military’s ability to deal with a so-called hybrid threat.
If Pyongyang chooses to use nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration’s newly-formulated doctrine on nuclear use would receive its first test. It is not clear what kind of punishment the United States could or should inflict on the North if that regime chooses to employ nuclear weapons against us or our allies. We may well wish that the Obama Administration had not truncated deployment of the National Missile Defense system.
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