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.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
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