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Korean War 2.0? The Signs To Watch

Posted by Mark Cancian on

US-South Korean exercise 2016

After threatening to rain four missiles around Guam, North Korea’s pudgy leader, Kim Jong-un appeared to back off today. The (spoof) official North Korean News Agency issued a fabulous tweet describing it, declaring: “Esteemed General Kim Jong-Un reprieves US colony of Guam, citing concern for ocelots and sea turtles. Fate of Los Angeles remains unclear.”

Given that LA may remain under threat (not every much, but…), we decided to run this excellent piece by Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies describing the indications and warnings of war. Read on! The Editor

The duelling words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea has led to much speculation about whether war is looming.

War does seem unlikely, given that several observers have noted that the US forces in Korea and the Pacific remain in a peacetime posture, but what would be the tells that war is coming?

(To be clear: the above tweet is a beautiful spoof but one so good who can resist! The Editor)

The Intelligence Community, our frontline observers, watch for indications and warning (I& W), specific actions that warn of an attack. What would I&W look like applied to our side to allow outsiders without security clearances to anticipate a possible conflict? The following list is based on preparations the United States took in conflicts over the last quarter century—Desert Storm in 1991, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, and the invasion of Iraq 2003— as well as what we know about the main Korean war plan, called OPLAN 5027.

There are five actions that would probably precede any conflict. The first is a diplomatic offensive to build a coalition against the North Koreans. Statements of political solidarity are important both for US domestic support and for international acceptance. All recent military conflicts have had some sort of coalition, and it takes a visible effort by the United States to stitch it together.

As conflict looks more likely, troops in Korea would be recalled to their stations and their leave cancelled. Naval forces would build up, both from extending the deployments of ships already in the Pacific and the early sailing of ships getting ready to deploy. (Don’t get fooled by regular deployments. The Navy routinely has carriers and amphibious ships operating in the Pacific.  That’s just day-to-day life for a superpower.)

The 20,000 U.S. dependents in South Korea would need to be evacuated. The United States has been in South Korea for over 60 years and has settled in with schools, commissaries, and entire communities. Shutting this down would be highly visible. Finally, there would be preparations against a North Korean response, that is, increased missile defense both on land (deployment of Patriot batteries plus enhancement to the THAAD unit already in South Korea). At sea the Navy would reposition ballistic missile defense ships, and we might see some Korean civil defense stations activated.

Specific types of conflicts would also have specific kinds of I&W.


Air war. In theory, the US and South Koreans could launch air and missile strikes on North Korean targets, for example on their nuclear facilities, from a standing start. The US has about 100 aircraft in country and the South Koreans have a large Air Force with over 500 fighter-attack aircraft, though none are fifth generation aircraft. The U.S. has ships in Japan armed with Tomahawk missiles. A missile strike could take place with little warning, as happened with the strikes on Syria last April. The ships would need to put to sea to avoid involving the Japanese, but that’s routine.

However, such strikes are often a one-time event because inventories are limited and some targets are too hard, too hidden or too resilient for missiles.  These would require aircraft and multiple strikes. US practice has been to use stealth aircraft in the opening phases of an air war in order to beat down the enemy air defense with a minimum of risk. That would mean bringing in F-22s from the United States, a move that would be easily visible, or redeploying Marine F-35Bs from amphibious ships to help with the air war.

B-2 bombers would not need to fly out of Korea, but they would probably be forward deployed to Guam in order to reduce the cycle time. Flying from their peacetime location at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri wastes a lot of time in the air, though it can increase the element of surprise,

B-52, B-2 and B1-B bombers fly over Guam

Nuclear strike. The United States would only use nuclear weapons if North Korean used them, so there would be an obvious indicator. The United States could launch a nuclear response from a standing start without any preparation or warning because the nuclear system is designed to operate immediately in response to a surprise attack. However, the United States would want to be sure that the Russians and Chinese did not mistake any response to North Korea as an attack on them. For that reason, it is unlikely the US would launch ICBMs from the continental United States and it might not even use one of the ballistic missile submarines. Instead, it might use a bomber, so that there would be no question about the intended target. These bomber strikes could be launched from the continental United States with little visible preparation.

ICBM shoot down. Experts have discussed the possibility of shooting down a North Korean ICBM test as a way of impeding Kim’s nuclear program without striking North Korean territory. Such a shootdown is unlikely to use the THAAD system in South Korea, even if it could be effective, because of the appearance of an attack from the South on the North. Instead, the US would likely use an Aegis destroyer with ballistic missile defense capabilities (about half the Navy’s destroyers have this capability). Such a ship would need to linger off the North Korean coast waiting for the ICBM to launch, and it would not be alone, having extensive backup in case of a North Korean response. (The capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 still haunts the Navy, and it would not hang a ship off the coast by itself.) Because these are international waters, nothing prevents US ships from being there, but the cluster of ships and preparations would be unusual.

Navy Aegis ships

All out invasion or defense. Hurling half a million US servicemembers at the North Koreans, which is what a full-scale war would entail, takes an immense amount of preparation that would be highly visible. Here are a small number of the actions that would be involved:

  • Surging the airlift fleet. The United States has about 270 C-17 and C-5 cargo aircraft for inter-theater lift and would need to pull these back from peacetime missions to support a deployment to South Korea.
  • Issuing pre-positioned material.  The United States has stocks of war fighting material in warehouses and onboard ships at locations overseas in order to speed deployment of forces to critical theaters. In preparation for conflict, the materiel in Korea, mainly in warehouses in Taegu in southeast South Korea, would need to be prepared for issuance to arriving troops. The ships with equipment, normally anchored at Guam, would need to sail to Korea.
  • Calling up reservists. After the Vietnam War, the Army was restructured to put more combat forces on active duty and support forces into the reserves. Allegedly, Gen. Abrams, the Army Chief of Staff at the time, did this intentionally to ensure that in future wars presidents would have to take the politically sensitive step of disrupting reservists’ civilian lives and communities. As a result, in order to conduct operations larger than about a division, the Army must call up some reservists and for the major war would need to call up hundreds of thousands.
  • Finally, my personal bellwether: military police units to handle prisoners of war. Some actions might arguably be portrayed as enhancing deterrence and not necessarily indicate in imminent conflict. However, the deployment of units designed to handle prisoners of war doesn’t do much to intimidate an enemy, but it is the kind of preparation needed for an actual conflict. The United States has two military police brigades in the Army Reserve for this purpose— the 300th and the 333d.

Bottom line: We’ll see any U.S. military actions coming. (Hard to say about the North Koreans; they’re a wildcard.) So watch the news and use this scorecard. If you see several of these I&Ws checked off, sit up and pay attention. Otherwise, relax.

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