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Whence goes North Korea?

North Korea has recently announced a willingness to:

  • Meet in a summit of the Koreas
  • Defer its nuclear and missile testing while seeking some form of negotiated agreement
  • Stated a willingness to de-nuclearization in exchange for some form of non-aggression effort from the US.

The recently concluded Winter Olympics provided a scene changer and face saving opportunity for the North Koreans.  Behind the screen of the Olympics the North Koreans could say that the atmosphere of détente offered by the South and the world conclave showed a different face of a world willing to talk to the Koreans.  It might be that the continuing tightening embargoes and financial and trade isolation of the North was finally being felt.  Those who oppose President Trump’s saber rattli9ng will be quick to jump on this position.  They will also quickly seek a loosening of the military build-up and potentially the offer of lifting of trade restrictions to show good faith.  To say that this is what the North Koreans are seeking would be an under-statement.

The North Koreans played a similar game with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with the desired results.  The North Koreans have demonstrated a much longer view of history than past US administrations.  The North’s bellicosity is reduced, promises made, military preparedness reduced and from Clinton energy and trade concessions made in exchange for what?  Words?  What concessions in reality were made? NONE!

A program of international inspections to verify the dismantling of certain production facilities—nuclear and missile technologies—is what is required for there to be a meaningful change in the situation on the Korean peninsula.  Will the North Koreans agree to such terms?  Will the South Koreans have the backbone to hang tough in demanding such terms in the face of numerous promises and possibly even the renewal of family visits?  That would be tough for the South Koreans to do.

In short while the North Korean words sound good, we are a long way from a meaningful resolution to this almost 75 year old growing problem.  This will require continued vigilance and as Ronald Reagan said: “Trust but verify.”

Bloody nose attack?

Recently I have read in multiple publications the exact same article—verbatim.  I guess some must think that because it is printed in so many publications that it must be true.  Well, maybe.  The articles say that the US is considering what is called a bloody nose attack against North Korea.  What is a bloody nose attack you ask?

A bloody nose attack is said to be an effort to destroy the next missile that Kim Jun Un launches.  The idea is to intercept the missile early in the launch phase.  The goal is to show the North Koreans that the US is serious about its demands of limits on North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.  Many argue that such an attack is fraught with dangers,

  • How will the North Koreans respond? Will they perceive this action for what it is a limited attack?  If they do not perceive this or do not wish to perceive it those that are against the attack fear that they will respond massively against South Korea.
  • What if the attempt fails? The prestige of the US will be greatly reduced, the pundits argue, and that of the North Koreans enhanced.
  • What if the attack succeeds? The North Koreans will have been embarrassed and because of the loss of face will either retaliate or be more willing to negotiate since it had been shown that their missiles could be intercepted.

I should also note that several congressmen have reported that F-35s with heat seeking missiles could destroy any missile in the launch phase.  Most of such reports do not link this to the time it takes the North to prepare a missile for launch or the ability of US intelligence to “see” the preparations and thus put the F-35s on station.   (I have been amazed that this information was leaked, but maybe it is part of my fourth option below.

The media is reporting that the National Security Advisor supports the attack while the Secretaries of State and Defense oppose it.  One almost never reads anything about the positions the LTG McMaster has supported.  Such deliberations are usually one thing that remain secret in a leaky administration.  This leads me to my fourth option.

The fourth option is a psychological warfare against the North designed to ratchet up the pressure.  One could argue that the saber rattling and now the threats of a bloody nose attack are designed to force the North Koreans to seek alternative ways to lower the pressure.  If one buys this strategy he could say: “Look it is succeeding.”  The North Koreans have in fact held talks with the South Koreans that have reduced the pressure some.  Possibly, in response to this, President Trump has stated his willingness to negotiate with the North Koreans.

Only time will tell how this will play out but the saber rattling psychological pressure may have worked.  If it worked the next question is why previous administrations did not try such an approach?  The answer probably has something to do with hutzpah and the willingness to go as far as necessary.  We will see.

North Korea: Next Steps?

As the debate swirls about North Korea’s latest shows of force:

  • Launching a missile over Japan
  • Exploding what may be a thermo nuclear weapon of some size bigger than that used against Hiroshima

There is need to consider the next steps for the west and North Korea.  Several weeks ago North Korea seemed to be backing down as its rhetoric and actions slowed after the US show of force. And then last week the US and South Korea conducted the military training exercise that the North had been trying to stop.  The training included an attack by B-2 bombers and other aircraft against simulated North Korean targets.  This was obviously part of the signaling that the US has been doing trying to deter the North Koreans.  It obviously didn’t work!

One doubts that UN ambassador Niki Haley’s comments that:”We have kicked the can down the road long enough, there is no more road left.” Or Secretary of Defense Mattis”s comments that the US can annihilate North Korea will have any effect. Another UN declaration condemning North Korea will also not have any effect.

A UN declaration that any country that trades with North Korea will have all of its trade from the other member nations suspended might be tried.  The US stopping $600 billion a year of trade with China would be significant, but is not likely. It would harm the US as much as it might harm China.  Conversely, it might create the leverage that President Trump has been seeking in negotiating with China about trade in general. Interesting—the short term pain might be worth the long term gain—increased pressure for China to rein in North Korea and a new trade arrangement between the US and China.

On the military front the US is dropping its limits on the weight limit of South Korean missiles—they will be able to carry more powerful warheads.  The Japanese are talking g about pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.  We haven’t heard a Chinese response to this discussion, yet. (One must remember that the Chinese have said that they would defend North Korea against a US attack, but would not get involved if the North Koreans started a conflict.)  Are the Japanese (or the US and South Koreans) trying to provoke the North Koreans to truly step over the line in the sand—whatever it is?  What do the North Koreans have to do to provoke the disarming and decapitating attack we talked about in an earlier article?

  • Fire missiles near Guam?
  • Fire missiles at Japan?
  • Take some form of aggressive action towards South Korea?
  • Begin the mobilization and readiness enhancement that are necessary on the road to war?

It is interesting to note that there has been no mention of the last bullet above and yet it is the most important indicator that military conflict may be coming.  Given the limited transportation and other logistical shortcomings of the North Koreans should they begin mobilizing for war this would be a very critical indicator.  One wonders if they could stop the mobilization once it started.  (History reminds us that many authors of contended that once the mobilization started before World War I it could not be stopped. “How can I stop if he doesn’t?)

The diplomatic posturing will continue as will the threatening rhetoric, but will there be military signaling by missile launches or other activities that cross that mystical line in the sand.  That is what we must look for, anticipate and be fearful of.  In the meantime the North Koreans will continue to try and be relevant and considered a true international actor.

North Korea and media madness

The media has gone wild in reaction to North Korea’s announcement of a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward Guam, a US territory and major military hub in the Pacific.

The announcement warned that the North is finalizing a plan to fire four of its Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into waters around the tiny island.  The media hasn’t made the differentiation between the island itself and the waters near the island. The report said the Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures in Japan and travel “1,065 seconds before hitting the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.” It would be up to Kim Jung-Un whether the move is actually carried out.

If North Korea were to actually carry out its threat and launch missiles into the international waters near Guam it would certainly constitute an escalation of the war of words that have enveloped the Korean Pennisula.  Such a missile test would clearly pose a potential threat to a US territory upon launch. This would put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches.

When initially launched how long would it take to determine the impact point and thus if the launch were a test or an actual first shot in a potential conflagration.

It is extremely unlikely North Korea would risk potential annihilation with a pre-emptive attack on US territory. It’s also unclear how reliable North Korea’s missiles would be against such a distant target.

The current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the US and Japanese military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading over Japan and towards Guam.

Guam has the airbase from which many of the aircraft that might attack North Korea would be launched.  Thus it represents a potential pre-emptive target.

This potential of a pre-emptive strike raises the stakes significantly.  Would the US launch on warning of an attack?  Would it prefer time to consider options by destroying the missiles before they impact?

The launching of a salvo of four missiles by the North Koreans might be an attempt to make it harder to intercept all of the incoming missiles. Conversely, North Korea is only believed to have 5 launchers for the Hwasong-12 missiles.  Why would they use and thus put at risk 4 of their 5 launchers in a test?

The situation is full of risk and miscalculation but it is not as grave as the media madness would suggest.

Disarming North Korea

In previous articles we talked about multi-domain or cross – domain operations.  We also talked about the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

As the North Koreans continue their missile launches and the US postures with B1 sorties, ICBM launches and THAAD intercepts speculation continues about what a strike against North Korea would consist of.

The first option would be some form of limited strike to destroy a missile before launch or against the North Korean nuclear facilities.  These limited strikes would be escalatory and the great unknown is what the North Korean response would be?  Would they play the limited escalation game where existing defenses might be adequate to counter the attack or would their response be massive?

One could always hope for the limited response but must be prepared for the massive one.

The second option would be a preemptive strike.  It is the more complex and in fact interesting from a pure strategic analysis perspective.

We said in an earlier post that any armed conflict against North Korea had to have several elements:

  •       Surprise
  •         Defenses in place to guard against missile, artillery and ground attacks—protect the hostages that are the people who live in Seoul
  •        Seek to decapitate North Korea—destroy its leadership or at least deny their communications and eventually lead to regime change and unification

There would appear to be four phases of such a military campaign:

  1.          Preparation
  2.          Deployment
  3.          Execution
  4.          Consolidation

The preparation phase will consist of the detailed planning necessary to surgically, accurately and in a synchronized cross domain approach allocate weapons systems, service component assets, etc. against multiple targets.

The critical and most difficult part of the preparation phase would be the diplomatic efforts to insure that the Chinese and Russians would not interfere with such an operation and would remain mum about its impending nature.  Such diplomatic efforts could have two potential outcomes:

1.       The desired neutrality of the Chinese and Russians, or

2.       Either the deterrence of the North Koreans – they wouldn’t want to provide even a minimal provocation or the desired provocation would occur.  Thus the timing of the diplomatic efforts would need to be added to the complex synchronization matrix

A separate diplomatic activity during preparation would be bringing coalition partners into the fold so as to integrate their assets and ensure that they are taking defensive actions while maintaining secrecy.  This is a tall order!

One of the critical aspects during the preparation phase is targeting and then weaponeering.  One must assume that after 60+ years since the end of the active fighting in the Korean War that a very detailed target data base has been developed and maintained.  Weaponeering is the process of assigning weapons based on target damage required to a target.  In the weaponeering process where cross domain activities will be critical.  Mixed service component weapons will be assigned different targets in a target set or they will be assigned to a specified target to insure the required level of damage.  The result will be Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List (JIPTL).

Deployment, having been planned for, during the preparation phase must position the forces to execute their planned missions

Execution must be violent and simultaneously bring all of the resources to bear.

Consolidation will be a time consuming process of unifying the Koreas.

To achieve the above objectives will be difficult.  Surprise will be difficult to achieve if the North Koreans can see defenses on alert or offensive forces deploying.  The North Koreans cannot be allowed to attack first given the 21 million captives that they hold in Seoul.  We are thus talking about a pre-emptive attack or one based upon minimal provocation.  Defenses cannot be established overnight.  It is taking months to establish the THAAD system in South Korea.  Activating counter-fire radar and other defensive sensors would be a sure tip off of preparations for counter fire.  Deploying naval and air assets into the theater will take time and cannot be done without the possibility/probability of detection.   However, maybe some of this could be obscured as being part of a pre-announced exercise.  (Could this be why the North Koreans keep trying to get combined exercises cancelled?)

Thus the key to the deployment phase is to do most of it very slowly (like a build up for an exercise) so that the threat perception is reduced.  The actual initial attacks in the execution phase must be huge and use precision efforts based upon the JIPTL—kinetic attacks. Cyber attacks to facilitate the air and missile attacks by spoofing or jamming radars.  The use of cross domain fires, such as ground force missiles attacking naval vessels as detected by overhead or sea based sensors. Stealth air craft to deliver disarming munitions on critical missile sites, air bases, communication nodes and artillery positions.  Cruise missiles would be used to support all of the other efforts.  The targeting must be accurate and wide reaching. Both cyber and kinetic weapons would be used to disrupt critical communications and at least temporarily decapitate the regime leadership.  Given the North Korean propensity for tunneling many of these munitions would have to be penetrating munitions or what are called “bunker busters”.

Imagine if you can the simultaneous attack by cyber efforts to deny the North Koreans selected command and control capabilities while precision guided munitions are destroying their navy and air force.  Other ground based artillery and missiles are assisting in that effort and are seeking to destroy as much of the North Korean artillery that can range Seoul as possible. Simultaneous with the destruction of the North Korean navy and air force and the attrition of the deployed artillery forces, the artillery near the DMZ and other combat support aircraft would be destroying any attacking forces. All of this would be occurring while the leadership is at least temporarily blind and without communications.

Given the amount of artillery the North Koreans have deployed north of the DMZ all of their artillery cannot be destroyed in this initial decapitating preemptive attack hence the follow on attack will have to be based upon counter fire capabilities.  Also with the beginning of the attacks airmobile forces will have to be on strip alert to deploy to counter any North Korean infantry who are coming out of how ever many tunnels they have built under the DMZ.

It is obvious in just considering the complexity of synchronizing these multi-domain combined activities that there needs to be a command and control capability that works across service component lines and nationality lines that is extremely precise while being agile and flexible.  We cannot be sure that such a capability currently exists.  As mentioned in the article about multi-domain operations the Air Force advocates the use of a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) to perform this synchronization.  This is to suggest that the joint force commander would operate from a CAOC and use its tools plus many more.  In building an air tasking order a NATO CAOC has tools that allow the display of the control measures and the flight paths of all of the  different types of aircraft planned to support an effort over a 24 hour period—multiple types of missions include offensive, defensive, surveillance air-to air refueling, etc.—very complex synchronization.  The software in the alliance command and control system (ACCS) displays all of this in an accelerated manner so that the commander can review the plan and approve it.  This capability is a beginning but the other service component contributions to the multi-domain attack need to be included in the integrated synchronized plan.  They currently cannot be.  In short the ACCS planning tools might provide a start point but they are air only focused.  The Joint Force commander needs more for this multi-domain and multi-nation effort.

In conclusion the biggest problem with the concept of multi-domain / multi-nation operations is the lack of synchronizing tools with the precision required to plan and execute an offensive action of the magnitude suggested in this paper

Maybe the first step in multi-domain operations needs to be at the tactical level where there are fewer variables and systems to be considered?

The next Korean conflict

North Korea on the US Independence Day claimed it successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  The missile flew for 40 minutes a total distance of   580 miles and landed in the Sea of Japan.  Its altitude is what led some to conclude that it was an ICBM.  Others say it may only be a less capable intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM).

Some analysts believe that if this was an ICBM that it marks a potential game-changing development in the ongoing standoff between North Korea and the rest of the world.  The potential range of the missile put all of Alaska at risk.  Over at least the past two decades North Korea has blustered and threatened its way to concessions.  The first coming while Bill Clinton was president.

Whenever North Korea feels that the sanctions are having an effect or it wants more recognition as a member of the nuclear “club” such disturbing tests—missiles or nuclear weapons—are stepped up.  The traditional response dating back to the 1990s has been some form of face saving concession by the US and the South Koreans.

This year the “tests” have exceeded in number, and failures, more than at any other time.  The new ‘leader” wants acceptance.

The crux of the issue is that North Korea is holding some 20+ million inhabitants of Seoul hostage.  Their missiles and dug-in artillery north of the Demilitarized zone can easily range and cause massive destruction and loss of life in Seoul.

This hostage situation makes the development of a non-appeasing strategy much more difficult.  In essence what is needed is a strategy whose objective is regime change and eventual unification of the Koreas.  (This assumes that South Korea is willing to pay the price to feed, clothe and house the peasants of the North who are continually in almost famine conditions.)

The military components of such a strategy must be disarming, decapitating, and a surprise.  Simultaneously defenses must be such that any attack after the initial disarming attack are capable of limiting damage to Japan and South Korea.

Before contemplating such an attack diplomatic efforts are continuing, but is the north paying attention?  President Trump has sought China’s assistance and the Chinese have at least played lip service to the request and did turn back North Korean shiploads of coal.  (China is North Koreas window for outside goods and the principal consumer of North Korea’s coal.)  The China card is a difficult one to play given the areas of disagreement between the US and China (the South China Sea dispute comes to mind.)

Beyond and in addition to additional sanctions (sanctions generally only hurt the people and not the leadership or the military and are thus of limited utility) and pressure from China there are some limited military options which might prove to provide some leverage.

Can the US intercept missile launches from North Korea early (during initial burn and before the missile gains significant altitude)?  Such an intercept would deny the North Koreans much needed data on the performance of the missile.  Are the North Koreans vulnerable to cyber attacks?  Can their media and some basic command and control capabilities be “turned off”?

The point is to show restraint while taking actions to gain leverage.

Let me know what you think we can and should do.

In the next article we will apply the concept of multi-domain operations to some of the opening engagements of a war on the Korean peninsula.