Home » Strategy

Category Archives: Strategy

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.”

Behind the smoke screen?

President Trump’s tweets and what seem to be off the cuff remarks are providing a perfect smoke screen for the media that want to focus on what they think is outlandish rather than do good journalism and find out what is happening behind the smoke screen.

Behind the smoke screen and the bluster and the magician act that the President is using to focus attention there seems to be a lot going on.  Hate for Trump, which the President thrives on, is allowing strategic activity that would remind one of the Kissinger days when the bureaucracy was busing doing busy work while real strategic moves and ground work were occurring behind the scenes.


                                                        National Security Adviser                                                                Lieutenant General H R McMaster

If one follows the National Security Adviser LTG H R McMaster there is not much to see until this last week. During the annual Munich Security Conference he seems to have emerged and has laid down several markers:

  • Used the incontrovertible truth that Russia sought to sow instability in the US elect ion process as a background to say that it was impossible for the US to work with Russia on cyber issues.
  • Called for action against Iran while scolding those states that traded with Iran for giving the terrorist sponsor a blank check
  • Called for action against Syria for using chemical weapons again

In addition he orchestrated the current Olympics lowering of the volume with North Korea.  One can readily see the North Koreans using the very fragile détente with South Korea coming out of the Olympics as an excuse for a “delay” in missile testing.

One can be sure that both LTG McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis, who has also adopted a low profile, are very aware of the trategic weapons growth by the Russians and Chinese and are laying long term plans to address the potential imbalances.

As the remarks in Munich indicate relations with Russia and the current sanctions will not improve until Russia makes a positive move in the Ukraine or elsewhere. In the meantime the nuclear modernization announced by the President will go on unabated.  Is the ground work being laid for a new round of arms control negotiations in 2019?

If the naval armada that has gathered in the South China Sea as a deterrent to North Korea starts migrating towards the Persian / Arabian Gulf one can anticipate the screws being applied against Iran.  Obviously Secretary of State Tillison and LTG McMaster’s trips to Turkey and discussions with the Saudis and Israelis have laid the groundwork for such actions.  These discussions also have further provided the venue for a consensus on how to deal with the continuing Syrian debacle.

In the first year of the Trump Administration while working behind the Trump smokescreen Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS), was put together by McMaster’s team. It champions a realpolitik worldview that puts American national interests first and sees the world as a competitive stage. “The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world,” the NSS states.

Additionally, it has a focus on “revisionist powers” China and Russia and “rogue regimes” North Korea and Iran as acting in ways that are against American interests. “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”

The strategy development in which the entire national security apparatus –State, Defense, and Intelligence Agencies etc.—participated took a year.  The media has given little attention to this strategy complaining that it is lacking in detail.  One is now starting to see the details based upon that the interests and objectives that were clearly defined and agreed to across the government.  In their most likely timeline now is the time for the deliberate but well thought out execution behind the smoke screen provided by the President.

It will be fascinating to see the media reaction as they see behind the smoke.  Or will they given their Trump hatred?

Articles about Khe Sanh and the fight in Khe Sanh Village

In recent weeks we have posted an entire series of articles on the events leading up to the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB).  If one sews the articles together he will have much of the story leading up to the siege.  This article provides a road map for those who want to catch up on what happened 50 years ago January 21, 1968.

Visit the 29 minute video of Nhi and I talking about Khe Sanh.

 Was America Duped at Khe Sanh—debunks an article in the New York Times about North Vietnamese strategy leading up to Khe Sanh

 General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy—continues the discussion of the false items in the previously mentioned New York Times article.  It presents the dueling strategies of the two sides.

 Limited War and Rules of Engagement—presents a discussion of the problems with limited war concepts and how they related to Rules of Engagement.

 Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up—explains the origins of the title Expendable Warriors.

 Command and Control in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO)—explains the quagmire that was the local command and control situation.  Lack of unity of command lead to a lack of unity of effort.

 The march towards the opening of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base—explains the North Vietnamese Army approach towards the village of Khe Sanh.

 1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter—how the battle around the village was originally explained in a newsletter published by Advisory Team 4 headquarters in Quang Tri.

 The village fight 2—further explains what happened during the defense of the District Headquarters

 Air Support for Khe Sanh Village—explains the various forms of air support that were used to support the defenders of the District Headquarters and how they were coordinated for.

 The Battle of Khe Sanh Village is Over—the Advisory Team the district forces withdraw after the Marines are withdrawn and further artillery support is denied.

Each of these articles can be found on https://brucebgclarke.com/

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.

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy

Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War.  Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)

Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with  a very stiff soldierly look.  Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam was all that Glen describes.  One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called ruled the Army.  There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II.  President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes to the strategy in Vietnam.

When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history.  Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee.  The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition.  The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South.  This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.

The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time.  When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam.  If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”.  This became the approach in Vietnam.

Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire of a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  Khe Sanh offered this opportunity.  The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed.  For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan.  The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”.  We were part of the bait and could not leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA.  The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.

Many of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical we deal with General Westmoreland.  One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective.  I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective.  However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture.  In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable.  Though we will probably never admit it.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did.  In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded.  The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone.  The political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day.  It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by strategic thinkers.  Colonel Summers was part of the Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted.  He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied “But you lost the war.”

If one reads my writings on conflict termination he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is.  A subject of another blog in our continuing discussion leading up to the 50th anniversary of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Is a new cold war on the horizon?

I have recently been reading the Dagger Brigade posts (2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which the author once commanded) as it moves around Eastern Europe training with allies as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve—a program to demonstrate NATO resolve to deter the Russians for dramatic attacks and conquest of its previous kingdom (satellite countries).

Atlantic Resolve and other NATO activities in Eastern Europe and the pledged increase in force capabilities seem to assume a conventional force attack by the Russians.  This approach is called into question by current Russian activities.

Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along while modernizing its deep underground bunkers, according to reports citing Pentagon officials.

The Russian force build up implies several aspects of its view of future warfare.  The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads. These will circumvent arms treaty limits.   Russia’s new doctrine is one of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.

This new doctrine as it evolves seems to combine the use of low and very low yield nuclear weapons in conjunction with attacks by tactical ground forces.  Simultaneous it seeks to maintain strategic deterrence by having a modernized mobile strategic arsenal.  The mobility of the strategic forces enhances their survivability.  Part of this deterrence effort includes fortification of underground facilities for command and control during such a nuclear conflict.

The United States and NATO are watching this alarming expansion as to determine if Russia is preparing to break out of current nuclear forces constraints under arms treaties, including the 2010 New START and 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties. Russia has already violated the INF accord by testing an illegal ground-launched cruise missile.

This Russian nuclear arms buildup is among the activities being studied by the ongoing Pentagon major review of US nuclear forces called the Nuclear Posture Review.  The conclusions of the review are expected to be disclosed early next year—possibly coinciding with state of the union address by the president:  He is on the record as saying: “I want modernization and rehabilitation… It’s got to be in tip top shape,”

The current posture review reverses the views of the Obama administration which called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons and the size of the arsenal. The cut back in nuclear forces by Obama was based on assessments—now considered false by many officials—that nuclear threats posed by Russia and other states had been lowered significantly, and that Moscow and Washington were no longer considered enemies.

The Obama administration based its strategic nuclear deterrence and warfare policies on the incorrect and outdated assumption that the prospects of US.-Russia military confrontation had been reduced sharply. However many have noted that since 2010 Russia, China, and North Korea have been engaged in steadily building up their forces with new nuclear arms and delivery systems, while Iran remains an outlier that many experts believe will eventually decide to build a nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration did not react to this changing strategic situation.

The Pentagon’s new posture review is based in part on a reversal of the outdated Obama-era assessment.  Most likely it will include:

  • Recognition of an increased global nuclear threat
  • Recommendations on increasing the US nuclear force modernization—warheads and delivery vehicles
  • A recommendation to revise US and NATO warfighting doctrine, tactics and techniques.

To many this may result in a modernized version of the Reagan era capability gap and a cry for almost drastic efforts to close the gap.  This will be a major fight for resources that President Trump could lose based upon liberal intransigence and an unwillingness to accept the threat.  Will the US and NATO react in time and with appropriate responses?

Is NATO’s Atlantic Resolve soon to be an inappropriate activity when the Russian nuclear threat is considered? OR can it or should it be modified to include the artillery battalion in the deployed brigade combat teams (BCTs) have nuclear warheads available?  Should the deployed artillery battalions train for the conduct of nuclear operations?  Should the ground forces train for operations in a nuclear environment?  Should additional nuclear capable systems be deployed with the BCTs?  These are all questions that NATO and the US need to consider as the efforts to deter Russian aggression continue.

Is the cold war returning?

Coup and counter coup in Saudi Arabia

Recent events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are confusing to some and of concern to others.  The conservative monarchy has been upended by its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known to the media as MbS).

The 32-year-old prince, acting under the auspices of his father, King Salman, has been busy since replacing his uncle in June of 2017 as crown prince,  Domestically, he has launched a radical transformation of the kingdom by making sweeping arrests of dissidents, Islamists, and even members of the royal family.  He has even given women the right to drive.

His upheaval would not have been possible without upsetting the balance of power arrangements which have maintained stability in the kingdom.  KSA was built on balances of power with balances of power the National Guard, lead by the previous crown prince was located in and around Riyadh. Conversely the Army is located on the periphery of the country and oriented outward. The army and the national guard are basically the same size.  The air defense forces are separate from the air force.  The Mutaween (also called the Islamic Secret Police) offset the secret police.  There were also coalitions within the royal family, however their conflicts rarely came to light until the current coup or counter coup by MbS.

In 2015 MbS was appointed by his father as Minister of Defense.  On April 22, of this year Prince Fahd Bin Turki was promoted to Lieutenant General (LTG) and appointed commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF).  LTG Fahd had once been the commander of the Saudi Special Forces.  This is one of MbS’s steps to upset the balance of power. He selected LTG Fahd and I am sure cemented his loyalty.  LTG Fahd also comes from a different wing of the royal family thus securing additional loyalty within the family.

Next he had the commander of the National Guard placed under arrest along with the Commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces.  He assumed control of the ministry of the interior.  In another move to upset the balance he had the role of the Mudaween dialed back extensively.

He also assumed control of the economic planning agency. He has pushed the sale of Saudi ARAMCO, the Saudi Oil Company, suggesting that it would bring several trillion dollars if placed on the open market.  He is also pushing for decreased dependence on oil as a source of income for the kingdom.

Finally, he arrested numerous princes and other financial leaders on grounds of corruption and froze their assets, thus potentially recouping many billions of dollars if their gains are found to be the results of corruption. It is interesting to note that the royals who are imprisoned in the Ritz Hotel in downtown Riyadh are guarded by Saudi Special Forces on the outer perimeter.  On the inside it has been reported that the security is provided by contractors who would be loyal to whoever was paying the bill.  (Another example of the balances of power being upset)

On the international front he launched a blockade against its neighbor Qatar, tightened the ongoing siege on Yemen, threatened to torpedo the fragile government in Lebanon, and sought to shore up a coalition against archrival Iran, which leads the Shia sect of Islam. On Sunday, he chaired the first-ever meeting of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Coalition of 41 Muslim countries where the group declared a global war on terrorism.

Some have suggested that : “He is dragging the country — with Western critics kicking and screaming — into the 21st century.”

In many ways MbS may be  seeking to fulfill a longstanding Saudi dream of leading the Arab world, and has sought to rebuild strong ties with the Trump administration, with over $7 billion worth of precision munitions having been purchased recently.

Any domestic forces that might have been arrayed against MbS are now  weak, with most of his rivals held in luxury prisons, keeping a low profile, or under house arrest. Civil society is fragmented after decades of repression and cooptation. Saudi Arabia has always been politically restrictive, and could yet become even more so under MbS.  However because he could be the dominant figure in the lives of Saudi citizens for the next half century, no one wants to cross him.

If MbS becoming the crown prince was the coup, then the counter coup was the upset of the balance of power by either muting or gaining control of the balancers.  Finally if there was a group of royals and financial leaders who were plotting a counter coup then the latest efforts might be called a counter counter coup.

The international activities of the next few months as MbS seeks to counter the growing influence of Iran will be important to watch.