Small Wars

This Week at War: Preparing for the Next Korean War

Kim Jong Un's forces could test the South soon. But don't expect it to look like 1950.

South Korea needs to brace for asymmetric warfare

The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and the presumptive elevation of his son Kim Jong Un, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the region and in Washington. Last year, two military incidents, the torpedoing of a South Korean navy corvette and North Korea's shelling of an island village in the south, killed 50 South Koreans. The concern in the south and in Washington is that Kim Jong Un -- or perhaps one of his rivals for the throne -- may see an advantage in more such incidents as a means of creating a crisis and rallying support. For decades, South Korea and the United States have prepared for a big war on the peninsula. Does Seoul need to do more to prepare for more exotic and asymmetric attacks like those that occurred last year?

Kim Duk-ki, a captain in South Korea's navy and previously an adviser to South Korea's president and chief of naval operations, believes the south needs to shift its focus away from preparing for the Big War and toward countering a variety of asymmetric attacks to which the south has become especially vulnerable. Kim's essay in the latest edition of Naval War College Review, published before Kim Jong Il's death, is not only timely but is also good advice for U.S. policymakers.

The 1950-53 war, which saw Seoul overrun twice by enemy armies, is the harsh historical memory which understandably forms the focus of war planning at the U.S.-South Korean military headquarters. Seoul remains in the center of the logical invasion route from the North and much of the city is exposed to artillery and rockets. It should thus be no surprise that preparing for a conventional 1950-style invasion has been the number one task for U.S. and South Korean planners. This imperative has also guided South Korea's heavy defense investment in conventional forces such as tanks, artillery, mechanized infantry, and attack aircraft.

Captain Kim believes that it is time for the south to steer a new course for its military investments anyway from preparing for conventional war and toward countering asymmetric and nonconventional threats. In his essay, Kim discusses the north's well-known interest in ballistic missiles, which, he asserts, the North could use in one-off raids, similar to last year's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Kim mentions the north's interest in special operations raiding, a technique it has used against the South in the past, and its development of small coastal submarines, one of which very likely sank the Cheonan corvette last year.

South Korea's telecommunications and computer infrastructure is one of the most developed in the world, creating a vulnerability to the North's cyberwarfare capabilities. Perhaps most ominously, Kim notes that as a nuclear and ballistic missile state, the north has the capability of delivering an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the south.

Nuisance attacks on the south, like those inflicted last year, have been a part of Pyongyang's behavior for decades. Yet deterrence by retaliation has never been a page in the South Korean playbook; with a much more developed economy and thus much more to lose, the South has always been on the losing side of the "escalation dominance" calculation. The South is similarly disadvantaged concerning its vulnerability to cyber, EMP, missile, and special operations raiding.

Kim recommends rebalancing South Korean military investments away from conventional war and toward active defensive measures such as missile defense, improved coastal anti-submarine defense, and better cyber defenses. Reducing funding for the tanks, artillery, and infantry defending Seoul is a risk. But Kim observes that the North's interest in unconventional tactics is an adaptation to which the south should respond.

Kim's description of South Korea's changing defense problems resembles in many ways the changes to which the Pentagon must now adapt. Kim Jong Il's death may end up sharpening Washington's focus on these changes.

Has the Air Force already lost the battle for Taiwan?

In a recent town hall meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told airmen to prepare for a shift toward the Pacific. That should hardly come as a surprise, given the Obama administration's repeated declarations of a "pivot" toward the region. But if it is Dempsey's task as the nation's top military officer to make sure that plans are in place to defend the United States and its allies in the region, the "pivot" may have come too late for Taiwan. A recent detailed study concludes that the Chinese air force will badly outgun the U.S. Air Force in the skies over Taiwan and that the only hope for preventing Chinese air superiority over the island during a conflict is through the threat of heavy bombardment of the mainland, with all of the danger that implies. The study also demonstrates that the Air Force and Navy lack some of the proper tools for fighting in the Pacific's vast expanses.

In a Ph.D. dissertation written for the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Eric Stephen Gons provides an exhaustive analysis of a simulated battle between the U.S. and Chinese air forces for the airspace over Taiwan. Gons's analysis takes into account the air bases available to both sides, their aircraft parking capacity, air base vulnerability and hardening, air defense systems, sortie generation rates, aircraft maintenance requirements, crew fatigue, probable weapons effectiveness, time and distance considerations, and other factors.

Even though the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor is far superior to its Chinese opponents, Gons concludes that the "tyranny of distance" will prevent the U.S. Air Force from winning a shootout over Taiwan. The Air Force's base on Guam, a three-hour flight to Taiwan, is the only viable U.S. base for the island's air defense. Although the U.S. has high quality air bases on Okinawa and Japan's home islands, these bases are very close to China and are thus vulnerable to China's massive arsenal of land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles. In addition, Gons asserts the Air Force would not operate its expensive and limited tanker and early warning support aircraft from these Japanese bases since they would be highly vulnerable to Chinese attack. This would preclude F-22 operations to Taiwan from these bases.

That leaves Andersen Air Base on Guam, which even when stuffed to capacity with F-22s and required support aircraft could only provide a continuous combat air patrol over Taiwan of just six fighters. The Chinese attackers, by contrast, operating from at least a dozen hardened and heavily defended air bases in southeast China, could sorties dozens or even hundreds of fighters over Taiwan at will. Six F-22s simply do not carry enough missiles to prevent Chinese fighters from breaking through and shooting down the Air Force tanker and early-warning aircraft supporting the F-22s east of Taiwan. In this case, the F-22s would be lost to fuel exhaustion and the United States would be forced to retreat, at least for the moment. Nor does Gons expect much help from the Navy. He estimates that the relatively short range of the Navy's aircraft carrier-based fighters, combined with the growing Chinese anti-ship missile threat, would dissuade the admirals from risking air operations over Taiwan.

Gons's most effective suggestion for leveling the balance over Taiwan is to use the Air Force's bombers and the Navy's cruise missiles to attack China's air bases. Most of these bases have hardened aircraft shelters, a few have underground aircraft parking, and all are defended by surface-to-air missiles and cannons. A sustained and costly bombing campaign would be required to beat down the Chinese air threat to Taiwan. Whether this requirement to bomb mainland China could deter Chinese action or would instead be an escalator to a much more costly war is up for debate. If future Chinese leaders don't consider this bombing requirement to be either a credible deterrent or something the United States would carry out, the apparent ease with which China could establish air superiority over Taiwan may be an invitation for China to attempt to reunify Taiwan by force.

Gons's study shows how difficult it is to project air and naval power against a capable opponent operating from continental bases. It also shows that the Air Force's short-range fighters, conceived during the 1980s for the confined European theater during the Cold War, will struggle to be useful in the Pacific's vast spaces. The Obama administration has pivoted to the Asia-Pacific. The Air Force and Navy need to adapt if they are to effectively support the new strategy.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Arms Race on the Gulf

Will it take Saudi nukes to deter Iranian nukes?

A coming Mideast arms race?

Last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, formerly Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, raised blood pressure levels when he suggested that his country would consider becoming a nuclear weapons state if it found itself between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel. Such an outcome would be a severe setback to the Obama administration's vision of working toward a world without nuclear weapons. With Iran's nuclear program proceeding apace, will more nuclear weapons, owned by either the United States or Saudi Arabia, be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear capability?

The annex of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran discussed the program's military dimensions and was the agency's most alarming yet. International sanctions and suspected covert action (such as the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassination of a few Iranian nuclear scientists, and mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites) have slowed but not stopped Iran's progress. Absent the arrival of some heretofore missing and persuasive sanction, the United States and its partners in the region face the prospect of eventually having to deter and contain a nuclear-capable Iran.

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the price of deterring Iran, which the authors asserted would be more costly than many have appreciated and would require much more preparation than the United States and its partners have made thus far.

Among the difficulties is the inherently subjective nature of deterrence -- which requires persuading adversaries to not do certain things, by threatening measures that U.S. planners estimate these adversaries would not tolerate. But these calculations depend on imprecise cross-cultural estimates of costs and benefits, where there is much room for misperception and miscalculation. In addition, Iran has created a diffuse structure of governing authority. This opaque arrangement, combined with Iran's expertise with irregular warfare and covert action, gives Tehran a method for taking hostile action while avoiding the responsibility for doing so.

Prince Turki seemed to suggest that Saudi Arabia requires its own nuclear force to, at a minimum, deter a classic and existential Cold War-style nuclear ballistic missile threat to the kingdom. The acquisition of a Saudi nuclear deterrent would be highly destabilizing. Very short missile flight times within the region, combined with fragile early-warning and command-and-control systems, would create an extremely dangerous hair-trigger posture on all sides. The Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would also be a crushing blow to the prestige of the United States as a military ally and to the diminishing role President Barack Obama has sought for nuclear weapons.

If, in the interests of stability, prestige, and nonproliferation, the United States wishes to dissuade Saudi Arabia from becoming a nuclear power, a U.S. security guarantee and adequate U.S. military forces in the region may be necessary. The AEI report noted that there has been little consideration of what military posture the United States might be required to maintain in the region to enforce deterrence and containment of a nuclear-capable Iran.

It would be a blow to the vision expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) if the United States eventually found itself stationing nuclear weapons around the Persian Gulf, as it had to in Europe and the Western Pacific during the Cold War. The NPR discussed "a devastating conventional military response" as an alternative form of deterrence. But looming cuts to U.S. conventional forces and the cultural friction created when U.S. forces were previously stationed in Saudi Arabia greatly reduce the credibility of this alternative.

Prince Turki and perhaps others in the Saudi royal family apparently believe that nuclear weapons will be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have good reasons to prefer that such a nuclear deterrent not be owned and operated by Saudi Arabia. But that likely means the United States will have to substitute its own deterrent instead. That's exactly the outcome the White House hoped to avoid.


Transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan will shake up U.S. ground forces.

On Thursday, Dec. 15, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a brief, low-key ceremony at Baghdad's airport that officially ended the Iraq war. Panetta held the surprise event two weeks before the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline in order to thwart insurgent plotters and allow the few remaining U.S. soldiers in Iraq to get home before Christmas. Earlier in the week, Panetta met with Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen announced that next year U.S. forces will step back from direct combat against the Taliban and shift instead to training and advising Afghan forces. The transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with looming cuts to the Pentagon's budget, will bring substantial changes to the organization of U.S. ground forces and even to the definition of who is a soldier.

Allen's proposed mission change in Afghanistan will require reconfiguring U.S. forces from a structure designed for combat to a structure more suited for partnering with Afghan units. Training and advising partner military forces is typically a job for older and more experienced officers and sergeants such as those found in the Army's Special Forces. By contrast, the general-purpose Army and Marine Corps combat forces now engaging the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan are more heavily staffed with first-enlistment troops, who are gaining experience while filling out the ranks of their squads.

After a decade of war, the Army and Marines Corps are well aware of the mismatch between their standard organizations and the staffing requirements of the advisory mission. Several years ago, the Army experimented with an "advise and assist" brigade, units that underwent specialized training and reorganization to conduct training and advising in Iraq and Afghanistan. And earlier this year, two Marine officers published a paper at Small Wars Journal summarizing their recommendations for how U.S. ground forces should organize advisory and assistance groups for Afghanistan.

With the U.S. advisory effort likely to last past 2014 in Afghanistan and with similar projects likely arising elsewhere this decade, the Army and Marine Corps may find it necessary to permanently establish brigade- and regiment-sized advisory commands. Should this occur, it would have significant implications for how these services recruit, train, organize, and equip their forces in the future.

In Iraq, the failure of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to negotiate a follow-on status of forces agreement means that aside from a handful of U.S. military officers at the U.S. Embassy, all U.S. military forces will leave the country. But the military-training relationship between the United State and Iraq is likely to carry on, with civilian contractors (most formerly soldiers) doing the work previously done by actual soldiers. Assistance to Iraq's continuing campaign against al Qaeda will similarly get an assist from contractors, civilian intelligence officers, and other paramilitary forces. This "civilianization" of military activity will continue to be a convenient workaround when the use of actual military forces is politically unrealistic.

In the recent rebellion in Libya, we saw another "outsourcing" of military activity. While U.S. and NATO air forces provided close air support to Libya's rebels, Obama promised that no U.S. military boots would be found inside Libya. No worries: Qatar, an Arab ally of the United States, provided to the rebels the hundreds of special operations advisors whom Obama felt constrained from providing himself, and in doing so, acted as a U.S. auxiliary.

Steep cuts in defense spending are likely to hit U.S. ground forces especially hard. But the Army and Marine Corps can adapt by reconfiguring their forces to perform in the ways just described and to prepare for future remobilization and reconstitution, should a future large crisis demand it. In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Robert Killebrew, a retired Army officer, argues for an army composed of fewer junior trigger-pullers, more experienced officers and sergeants suited for advisory duty, a robust military-school system to keep soldiers and allied officers on the cutting edge, and readiness to quickly reconstitute full combat units with new recruits in a crisis.

We can thus see the concept of the soldier stretching to include not just a rifleman, but also a trainer, advisor, contractor, paramilitary, auxiliary, and commander in waiting. This is nothing new in either world or U.S. history. But there are implications for how Pentagon planners ponder reshaping the Army and Marine Corps.

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