US Military Options Against North Korea- Part One

F-22 Raptors Arrive on Andersen

Deep inside of the Pentagon there exists a collection of Operation Plans (OPLAN) covering nearly every possible scenario the US military could potentially face one day, from a possible war against Russia in Europe to an invasion from another world. The US military is an institution that places immense value in contingency planning. There’s a need for plans to be available and ready to go at a moment’s notice. They don’t have to be perfect operational blueprints, but they need to exist.

There are regularly updated plans that cover conceivable events in Korea. OPLAN 5027 is the general US war plan for contending with North Korean invasion of the South, and a resulting general war in Korea. OPLAN 5029 covers a possible collapse of the North Korean government and the chaos it could unleash. Though it is reassuring to know that plans are available in theory, the OPLANs focused on North Korea do not automatically translate to a concrete US military option for North Korea in the real world.

There will certainly never be an Operation North Korean Freedom where US forces surge north across the DMZ to liberate North Korea from its despotic government. The US went down a similar road in the Middle East and it ended up being an enormous strategic miscue. The ghost of the first Korean War and Vietnam, the classic blunder of becoming involved in a land war in Asia, is alive and well in the minds of many American policymakers. Bearing this in mind, it is safe to assume that the shape of a military option against North Korea will be limited in scope and predominantly involve air and naval forces, with the exception of North Korea moving across the DMZ. In the case of a North Korean invasion all bets are off. US Army and Marine forces would be introduced into the fighting as quickly as possible. Given the geopolitical, economic, and military realities of East Asia any US military action will probably be defensive in nature. Conceivably, there are very few scenarios where the United States would strike preemptively or unilaterally.

One concept gaining traction at the moment is what might happen if North Korea does successfully build a long-range missile capable of reaching US territory. I touched on this in Friday’s post. As the North devotes more time and energy to its missile development, and makes boastful claims of being able striking the US mainland, the Pentagon is taking a hard look at what a pre-emptive strike against North Korea would entail. Initially, work has to be undertaken on a host of issues to ensure that the foundation for pre-emptive action will exist if and when the time comes.

Basing is a significant concern. With the exception of those on Guam, every US military base in the region is located on foreign soil. A pre-emptive operation can only be undertaken with at least the tacit approval of the host nation’s government. Since any future effort will involve a large amount of airpower, open access to US airbases in Japan and South Korea is essential. Of course, missions can be flown from the decks of US aircraft carriers, and TLAMs launched by US warships operating in international waters. However, sea-based airpower and cruise missiles do not give PACOM the wide array of flexibility and options that land-based airpower does.

To ensure that US bases are not restricted by their host nations in some way, Washington needs to think about how it can enlist the diplomatic support of America’s Pacific allies before any future military operation. South Korea is on the cusp of a political shift that may see the next administration in Seoul seeking political and diplomatic rapprochement with the North. The desire for better relations with North Korea could dissuade Seoul from supporting an American effort. Another important factor will be the reason for the United States to take action against North Korea. If the US objective is to neutralize North Korea’s missile program it could find a lukewarm reception to the idea in Tokyo and Seoul. After all, the South Koreans and Japanese have been living with the threat posed by North Korea’s missiles for almost twenty years now.

Part Two of this article will be posted on Wednesday. It will cover the other potential roadblocks facing potential US military action against North Korea in the near future, as well as offer a descriptive summary of how pre-emptive action might play out.

Friday 17 March, 2017 Update: Tillerson Calls for a New North Korean Strategy

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is briefed by U.S. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea, in South Korea

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly acknowledged that twenty years of diplomatic efforts aimed at North Korea have been an abject failure. The era of ‘strategic patience’ is over and a new strategy is needed to contend with North Korea. Tillerson’s comments essentially mirror what the rest of the world has been thinking for years now. Diplomacy, concessions, and even some instances of thinly veiled appeasement have not deterred North Korea from embarking on a nuclear weapons program. If anything, it convinced Pyongyang that its nuclear ambitions were completely insulated from outside interference. Emboldened, the North pursued and obtained nuclear weapons, as well as medium and long range ballistic missiles. At present, North Korea has multiple nuclear devices and a stockpile of ballistic missiles with various ranges and capabilities.

Tillerson went on to say that the military option is ‘on the table’ if the threat from North Korea’s weapons program reaches a level requiring it. Translation: If the North manages to construct or obtain a ballistic missile capable of reaching US territory, the military option becomes reality.

Realistically, that is the only scenario where a military option could be viable. A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile represents nothing short of a clear and present danger to the United States and would need to be eliminated without delay. A greater effort aimed at the North’s entire nuclear program would not be successful. Not in 2017. There was a time, when the program was in its infancy, that a concentrated military effort could have effectively destroyed enough components to guarantee that an attempt by North Korea to field a nuclear device would be stillborn. Specifically, it would have been an intensive air campaign similar to the opening stage of Operation Desert Storm. Sadly, the window of opportunity to launch a successful, largescale air campaign closed some years ago.

With that in mind, the question that demands intense consideration at the moment is: Does a military option even exist now? Over the weekend Today’s DIRT will shed some light on the question and provide an answer.

*Authors Note: Apologies again, the USAF Rebuild article is going to be delayed yet again as we focus on North Korea (and the NCAA basketball tournament 😊) this coming weekend.*

 

The Interim Deal With Iran: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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Iran and the White House are obviously on separate pages regarding the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that was reached in Geneva. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contends that the concessions agreed to by his side have been misunderstood by the US. During an interview on CNN, Zarif was adamant that his country is not dismantling any portion of its nuclear program. “We are not dismantling any centrifuges, we’re not dismantling any equipment, we’re simply not producing, not enriching over 5%.”

The US and Iran each regard the language of the agreement differently. This comes as no surprise. What is questionable, though, is the level of expectation that the White House had in mind for the interim agreement. Did the Obama administration expect Iran to begin dismantling its nuclear program at some point in the near future? It’s apparent that is not going be happening. Zarif, using diplospeak, just told the White House to go take a flying f**k.

Clearly, Tehran wants to strike a long term deal with the West and they want the terms to be as favorable to Iran as possible. Favorable in this instance means the removal of the economic sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy, without having to agree to restrictions being placed on the nation’s nuclear program. From the Iranian perspective, a best-case scenario would be the lifting of sanctions coupled with the eventual acquisition of a nuclear device. On the other side of the equation, this result is a worst-case scenario for the United States and the other Western powers.

Iran’s leaders understand that time is on their side. The longer the negotiation process is drawn out without resolution, the closer Iran gets to a workable nuclear weapon. US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that if an agreement cannot be reached, the military option remains on the table. His words are little more than tough talk. Kerry’s hawkish warning has not been backed up by decisive action by the Obama administration. After the US inactions in Egypt and Syria, Iranian leaders probably believe that they have little to fear from American cruise missiles and warplanes. The sad part is that they might be correct.

Israeli missiles and warplanes, on the other hand…….