Deep inside of the Pentagon there exists a collection of Operation Plans (OPLAN) covering nearly every possible scenario the US military could potentially face one day, from a possible war against Russia in Europe to an invasion from another world. The US military is an institution that places immense value in contingency planning. There’s a need for plans to be available and ready to go at a moment’s notice. They don’t have to be perfect operational blueprints, but they need to exist.
There are regularly updated plans that cover conceivable events in Korea. OPLAN 5027 is the general US war plan for contending with North Korean invasion of the South, and a resulting general war in Korea. OPLAN 5029 covers a possible collapse of the North Korean government and the chaos it could unleash. Though it is reassuring to know that plans are available in theory, the OPLANs focused on North Korea do not automatically translate to a concrete US military option for North Korea in the real world.
There will certainly never be an Operation North Korean Freedom where US forces surge north across the DMZ to liberate North Korea from its despotic government. The US went down a similar road in the Middle East and it ended up being an enormous strategic miscue. The ghost of the first Korean War and Vietnam, the classic blunder of becoming involved in a land war in Asia, is alive and well in the minds of many American policymakers. Bearing this in mind, it is safe to assume that the shape of a military option against North Korea will be limited in scope and predominantly involve air and naval forces, with the exception of North Korea moving across the DMZ. In the case of a North Korean invasion all bets are off. US Army and Marine forces would be introduced into the fighting as quickly as possible. Given the geopolitical, economic, and military realities of East Asia any US military action will probably be defensive in nature. Conceivably, there are very few scenarios where the United States would strike preemptively or unilaterally.
One concept gaining traction at the moment is what might happen if North Korea does successfully build a long-range missile capable of reaching US territory. I touched on this in Friday’s post. As the North devotes more time and energy to its missile development, and makes boastful claims of being able striking the US mainland, the Pentagon is taking a hard look at what a pre-emptive strike against North Korea would entail. Initially, work has to be undertaken on a host of issues to ensure that the foundation for pre-emptive action will exist if and when the time comes.
Basing is a significant concern. With the exception of those on Guam, every US military base in the region is located on foreign soil. A pre-emptive operation can only be undertaken with at least the tacit approval of the host nation’s government. Since any future effort will involve a large amount of airpower, open access to US airbases in Japan and South Korea is essential. Of course, missions can be flown from the decks of US aircraft carriers, and TLAMs launched by US warships operating in international waters. However, sea-based airpower and cruise missiles do not give PACOM the wide array of flexibility and options that land-based airpower does.
To ensure that US bases are not restricted by their host nations in some way, Washington needs to think about how it can enlist the diplomatic support of America’s Pacific allies before any future military operation. South Korea is on the cusp of a political shift that may see the next administration in Seoul seeking political and diplomatic rapprochement with the North. The desire for better relations with North Korea could dissuade Seoul from supporting an American effort. Another important factor will be the reason for the United States to take action against North Korea. If the US objective is to neutralize North Korea’s missile program it could find a lukewarm reception to the idea in Tokyo and Seoul. After all, the South Koreans and Japanese have been living with the threat posed by North Korea’s missiles for almost twenty years now.
Part Two of this article will be posted on Wednesday. It will cover the other potential roadblocks facing potential US military action against North Korea in the near future, as well as offer a descriptive summary of how pre-emptive action might play out.