ZUMWALT: The Air, Ground, and Sub-Surface Threats in a War with North Korea

With tensions mounting on the Korean Peninsula, the US focusing on force multipliers in the region, and President Donald Trump showing a resolve to confront tyrants (as his missile strike against in Syria demonstrated), we hear North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s bravado.

Pyongyang’s “Incredible Bulk” claims he is “not frightened” by Trump and that “full-scale war” will result from any US action.

Such comments are unsurprising from one whose sole military experience involved occasionally wearing a uniform, once as a child and later while being groomed for a leadership role by his father. Doubtful too is that Kim has been briefed by his military concerning its abysmal performance against the U.S. years earlier in the only known US-North Korean air combat encounters to occur after the Korean War.

Before sharing those, let us examine some of what a full-scale confrontation with North Korea might involve.

One word to aptly describe it is “short.” Basically, in addition to cyber warfare, five other threat fronts would be involved. While three of them would be very short-lived, the remaining two could prove to be relatively longer. Duration would also be a factor of who fires first.

The threats involved include:

  • The air threat: The U.S. would quickly establish air superiority against the North as its air defense system, its airbases and any aircraft on the ground would quickly be destroyed in our first volley. An interesting capability the North has is use of extraordinarily wide and straight stretches of its road network — built although lacking vehicular traffic to justify same — undoubtedly intended for use as make-shift airstrips in times of conflict. Should Pyongyang choose to spread its military aircraft out by positioning them at such road airstrips, it would present a bit more challenge to ensure all its air assets were quickly neutralized.
  • The ground threat: Almost 80 percent of North Korea is mountainous terrain. This means offensive operations against the South involve channeling assets on limited avenues of approach — thus exposing forces to extensive US air strikes. Such avenues could easily be destroyed, creating bottlenecks for Pyongyang’s forces to advance south.
  • The surface naval threat: North Korea’s surface navy consists of a handful of frigates and corvettes, mostly aged, posing no serious threat to the U.S. Navy.
  • The sub-surface naval threat: North Korea does have several diesel submarines of various sizes that could pose a threat to U.S. naval forces. In 2010, we witnessed an unprovoked North Korean attack against the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The tactic used involved a North Korean sub lying silently on the ocean floor, awaiting its prey before firing a torpedo that exploded under the target, breaking the ship in half and sinking it. Cheonan failed to detect either the submarine or the incoming torpedo. The former may have been the result of the submarine constantly occupying the same location on the ocean floor as the Cheonan regularly patrolled the waters, leading the South Korean ship to believe it was only a shipwreck. The latter may have been the result of using a high-tech, high-speed “supercavitating” torpedo, which is more difficult to detect.
  • The sub-surface ground threat: Over four decades ago, Kim’s grandfather—Kim Il Sung—ordered the digging of large invasion tunnels under the DMZ. He claimed one tunnel to be more effective than ten atomic bombs, allowing a means of avoiding the South’s fortified front. Four of these tunnels have since been located after they collapsed on the South’s side or were inadvertently discovered. It is believed many more exist, which the North Koreans will punch through in the event of hostilities. The tunnels are wide enough for tanks to transit (and, thus, even to accommodate Pyongyang’s well-fed leader)! It is a transit Kim longs to make as, according to a defector, he envisions himself one day ruling as “King of the Korean Peninsula.” Pyongyang also has reportedly purchased thousands of South Korean military and law enforcement uniforms, suggesting its game plan is to sneak agents into the South through these tunnels to create chaos and conduct mass killings. Additionally, a massive tunnel system exists under Pyongyang, not only sheltering its military leaders but providing an escape route for “fearless” Kim. It is said the latter is 1000 feet deep. If so, it would be impenetrable by any existing conventional US munitions.

But the North does possess one capability drawing our Pentagon’s attention: nuclear weapons. Pyongyang could dispatch an innocent-looking commercial vessel, operating just off our coast, from which to launch a hidden missile armed with a nuclear warhead and programmed for high altitude detonation. This would create an Electro-magnetic Pulse (EMP) wave capable of destroying large parts of our electric grid system. It is estimated that such an attack, while not inflicting high casualties initially, could eventually result in 200 million American deaths by disrupting life as we know it. Alternatively, Pyongyang could engage Iran’s help to have its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, which is very active south of our borders, to smuggle a nuclear device into the US for later detonation.

What Kim’s military may not have shared with him is its performance during the Vietnam war after Pyongyang pressed Hanoi to allow it to send a squadron of pilots to engage American pilots. Although reluctant to do so, Hanoi eventually agreed. However, two months later, Hanoi sent the surviving North Korean pilots packing. The North Koreans, flying North Vietnamese planes, performed poorly. Every North Korean pilot engaging a US plane was shot down. Today, in Bac Giang Province, just outside Hanoi, are 14 obelisks marking the gravesites of those North Korean pilots failing to make it home.

While lacking all concern for human life, Kim would be well advised to study US fighting capabilities and North Korea’s lack thereof before putting his military at risk, for his own survival depends upon it. He needs to spend less time expanding his girth and more expanding his military knowledge!


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