By Rob Givens, USAF, Ret.
What would war with North Korea look like? We often hear it is “unimaginable,” but with increased pressure, the unimaginable is becoming more possible. Gen. Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff described the potential conflict as, “horrific.” So what would this not-so-unimaginable, yet horrific, war look like?
Without getting into the important questions of how the war would start—which would certainly change key aspects of how the combat operations proceeded—the basic aspects would be the same: Thousands of aircraft will wage an epic battle across the entire Korean Peninsula. The two USAF fighter wings—100-plus fighter aircrafts permanently stationed there—accompanied by South Korean partners would fight the opening minutes, defending against the North’s aged, but plentiful air forces while also bombing our enemy’s missiles and artillery. If the North has the initiative, we will have to accept higher risk going after targets before establishing air superiority—meaning we will suffer higher losses. In short order, the air forces in South Korea would be joined by U.S. Navy, Marine, and Air Force fighters from Okinawa and Japan. U.S. bombers from around the globe would also be called into the air effort. Every square foot of North Korea would be in range.
Allied naval forces would begin the difficult task of hunting for and safe-guarding against the 70-plus North Korean submarines. There would be small, but deadly engagements as our naval forces maneuvered within range of North Korean anti-ship missile batteries. Despite our clear superiority in naval forces, the Allied side would lose ships and, most unfortunately, sailors. North Korean mines, torpedoes, and anti-ship missiles would present a direct threat to commercial shipping, making it risky to evacuate foreign national civilians by sea.
Ground forces along the DMZ, almost exclusively South Korean, will be locked in a knife fight. The terrain is rugged, narrow, and provides very little room to maneuver. The mobile battlefield witnessed in 1991 and 2003 in Iraq will not be possible amidst the rice paddies and mountains of Korea. Massive amounts of firepower would rein fire on both sides. The confined nature of the terrain, and the North’s ability to infiltrate behind our lines, makes even hand-to-hand combat possible. And If the ground fight had to roll North to seek a decisive resolution, we would need more soldiers—a lot more soldiers—we would be viewed as occupiers, not liberators, in the minds of the North Koreans. We would have to dig them out of their defenses and control their population, and that would take a lot more soldiers.
The “horror” would set in as thousands were killed or wounded. In some estimates, the North would inflict 20,000 casualties a day in Seoul alone for the first several days. The herculean effort to limit collateral damage witnessed in our Middle Eastern wars will be impossible to repeat. We will operate within the laws of armed conflict, but significant loss of innocent life would be unavoidable due to the locations North Korea chooses for its weapons.
We will use cluster weapons that spread bomblets over areas the size of football fields. We will return artillery fire wherever enemy batteries are firing. When optimum for military conditions, we will hit targets in the middle of urban areas—it would be impossible to prevent civilian casualties. To fight effectively, we will have to bomb command facilities in the heart of neighborhoods. We will destroy missiles on mobile launchers even if placed in sensitive areas. Our ground forces will pour fire into the enemy without an excessive regard for damage. And, yes, we will bomb targets more widely than in recent decades.
While we won’t visit indiscriminate destruction on urban areas like we did in WWII, we will do our best to cover the open valleys and narrow avenues of approach where the North Korean military will be assembling and advancing. If it rolls, shoots, or can hurt us—no matter where it is—we will destroy it. And that is just us. We can only imagine how the North will fight.
North Korean forces will most likely level much of Seoul with the 11,000 pieces of artillery and rockets they have deployed within range of this city of nearly 10 million. Their subs will lurk the difficult waters of the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. They do have the potential to sink Allied ships. They will infiltrate the South with their numerous special forces—possibly even hitting United States personnel and assets. They will rain ballistic missiles on indiscriminate targets in the region to include U.S. military bases and perhaps diplomatic facilities. They could use biological and chemical weapons, which is not overly effective against militaries but devastating against civilians.
If desperate enough, they could split the atom, hitting targets in South Korea or Japan. Imagine our response.
As a combat veteran, I maintain that all war is “horrific,” but a new Korean war would most likely reach new levels of destruction and make our last 16 years of active combat in the Middle East pale in comparison.
Rob Givens is a foreign policy and national security expert at Defense Priorities. He is a former Brigadier General who served in the USAF for 27 years before retiring and comes to Defense Priorities having recently served as the National Security Advisor for a Republican presidential and senatorial campaign. Rob previously served as the Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations of U.S. Forces Korea. He has held command at the squadron, group, and wing levels and holds Masters degrees from the School of Advanced Air Power Studies and the National War College.
This piece was originally published by Breaking Defense on September 6, 2017. Read more HERE.