- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense future of war department, red team director
The bomb that killed the president of the United States on May 31, 2019, was small but powerful. So was the one that killed two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and blew the legs of their chairman during their weekly meeting at the Pentagon. The question of how someone could penetrate the security of the two most secure buildings in Washington might have triggered conspiracy theories for decades to come if events halfway around the world in Korea, where similar explosions disabled key American and South Korean military command posts, had not provided an ominous answer. Simultaneously, much of Seoul was leveled by a devastating massive artillery and rocket barrage. All this was the first stage of the Second Korean War.
The North Korean force that crossed the Demilitarized Zone, and overran most of South Korea within two weeks has been described as a “horde.” In reality, it was smaller than the U.S. and South Korean force that opposed it. To be sure, the vast number of armed North Koreans who followed the assault force was larger than the allied force, but it was primarily tasked with population control, exterminating South Korean political and intellectual leadership, and providing security against stay-behind resistance fighters as well as American and South Korean Special Forces. In reality, what caused the havoc in Washington and Korea was a revolution in military affairs that Western planners had overlooked.
While the United States concentrated on large robotic unmanned aerial systems to gather intelligence and deliver precision weaponry, the North Koreans were going small with ground robotics. The devices that infiltrated the Pentagon and the White House were about the size of a small cell phone and were camouflaged to look like rodents. Indeed, one alert White House aide spotted one of the devices, but instead of sounding the alarm, she called for a General Services exterminator. The North Koreans had also developed highly lethal enhanced explosives as payloads to be carried aboard the tiny robotic assassins.
Half a world away, the counterparts of the Washington assassins were similarly small. Instead of carrying explosives they carried miniature cameras and transmitters that allowed them to send pictures and even sound from their target locations. There were hundreds of these devices. They had been planted by sleeper agents, and were located at every key road intersection, bridge, cloverleaf, and airfield. The devices were transmitting by satellite relay to the commanders of the North Korean assault columns. Every time an allied unit tried to maneuver through one of these key points or launch aircraft from airfields, they were instantly targeted by enemy artillery. Except for the robots equipped for sabotage and assassination, which were fairly complex to allow infiltration, these forward observer robots were relatively simple. Once hidden in their overwatch locations, they were just mobile enough and smart enough to move to more secure locations if they perceived proximate danger. They too were roughly disguised as rodents, and so the Americans began to call them “rats.”
In addition, the North Korean tactical commanders knew where the Americans and South Koreans were not located, which enabled them to find gaps and maneuver around and behind the allies. When the U.N. forces tried to counter these maneuvers, they found themselves pinned down by deadly indirect fire. Within 14 days, the allies found themselves holding on to an enclave around the port of Pusan. The situation did not begin to stabilize until the allies began using dogs, detector devices, and even children to find and eliminate the tiny robotic spies. Once again, the adaptability and resourcefulness of American soldiers and Marines compensated for the lack of foresight of their leaders. But a long slog lay ahead if the South was to be re-liberated.
As with the Germans in the Second World War, the North Korean blitzkrieg was not a revolution in military affairs with wonder weapons. The northerners had used existing technology in a combined arms approach that created strategic surprise among their opponents who had counted on technology and an all seeing overhead operational picture. Instead, it was the North Koreans, moving through a cloud of instantaneous real-time intelligence, who achieved information dominance.
Ironically, the Americans had experimented with this concept in the latter years of the 20th century, but it was abandoned after 9/11. There was much more money in large automated airborne systems. The world saw that the Americans spent billions, but were beaten by a foe that invested millions.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He teaches red teaming at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.