Slam-dunk? Ground combat in North Korea no sure win for U.S.

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, ret

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) continues to reflect conventional thinking in Washington when he says of North Korea, "I don't want to, but if we have to, we'll go to war. And I'll tell you who'll win that war,” he confidently declared, “We will." The vast majority of pundits and military experts agree.  An examination of a few critical factors, however, reveals such confidence is out of place.

American conventional military power defeated Saddam Hussein’s armed forces in Kuwait in 1991, completed Iraq’s destruction in 2003, and easily overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. Moreover, it doesn’t take much investigation to recognize that North Korea’s military is poorly fed, has limited education, and is equipped with tanks and other military hardware dating from the 1970s. On the surface, it appears the U.S. should defeat the North Koreans as easily as it dispatched Iraq and the Taliban regimes. An examination of the factors beneath the surface, however, reveals a more complex picture.

In addition to serving a military deployment with the South Korean Army in the late 1990s, I fought on the frontlines against the then-vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard’s armored divisions in 1991, served as a military advisor to an Iraqi battalion for several months in 2009, and spent a year in Afghanistan in 2011, often alongside U.S. troops engaging the Taliban in firefights.

I can tell you with certainty that the tactical and operational military challenge the U.S. would face in a ground war in North Korea would be orders of magnitude more difficult—and a successful outcome anything but assured. A fight on the ground in North Korea would present three major tactical challenges and two strategic ones.

First, the terrain over which the battle would take place offers the defenders major advantages and limits key U.S. strengths. North Koreans have developed extensive  tunnels which would withstand even massive bombardment.

Narrow mountain roads would negate the U.S. Army’s strength of maneuvering across wide spaces and force U.S. troops to remain road-bound at key locations, making them vulnerable to attack. North Korean troops have spent years making near-impenetrable mountain defenses, forcing the U.S. to lose large numbers of men to dig them out, similar to the way fanatical Japanese troops did on Pacific islands during World War II.

Second, North Korea has more than a million active troops and five million reserve forces—all of which would be called into service in the event of a U.S. invasion. Having been brain-washed for decades about U.S. intentions for their homeland, they would fight viciously, likely dying in staggering numbers yet continuing to fight.

Third, even if the fight doesn’t go nuclear, It is likely Pyongyang would use chemical—and possibly biological—weapons against U.S. troops. Hitting highly trained U.S. mechanized troops at chokepoints with chemical agents could trap entire battalions or brigades in kill zones. While North Korean troops have old equipment, their missile and artillery forces are highly lethal and could devastate concentrations of U.S. soldiers unable to maneuver to safety.

Strategically, there is always the possibility that China could provide material support to North Korea or even directly engage American troops as they did in 1950. China has often criticized the Kim regime, but made clear that should the U.S. ever start a war, they would aid their erstwhile communist ally.

We can always count on Russia exploiting any situation to its advantage. Nothing would serve Moscow’s interests more than to see the United States get bogged down into yet another extended military blood-letting, especially against Russia’s natural rival China, sapping the U.S. of physical, economic, and moral strength.

Lastly, we should not underestimate the damage done to U.S. readiness to engage in conventional combat by the dissipation of our military strength as a result of our permanent engagement in small-scale, counterinsurgency fighting for more than a decade and a half. It has been this diversion, not sequestration, that is primarily responsible for the degradation in our conventional fighting ability.

Under the very best of circumstances, in short order, U.S. ground forces would suffer casualties eclipsing the combined totals suffered from all the wars since 9/11—in a worst case, it could be tens of thousands dead and scores thousands more wounded. The American military is indeed a world-class force, but it is not optimized to fight against a determined enemy, fighting on its home turf, in terrain that negates America’s greatest military advantages.

President Trump and members of Congress should give substantial and sober consideration to the risk they would be taking with the health of the U.S. military before ordering any ground action—including the so-called “bloody nose” option—on the Korean peninsula. Such risk should only be taken when a foe demonstrates both the intent and capacity to attack America. To date, the Kim regime has not signaled such intent, and thus launching a preventive war in the current environment would not preserve U.S. security, but almost certainly degrade it. Because America’s conventional and nuclear superiority will continue to deter North Korea from launching any attacks against U.S. interests, there will be no second Korean war unless Washington starts one.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on February 10, 2018. Read more HERE.