A recent war games scenario conducted by the U.S. Army War College has brought to light concerning shortcomings with the U.S.'s ability to recover nuclear weapons in a failed state. CNN's Jake Tapper recently reported on this startling development. The objective of the recent war game simulation was to neutralize or secure the nuclear arsenal of a country dubbed "North Brownland" — a nickname for North Korea. The characteristics North Brownland shared with North Korea are quite similar; a familial dictatorial authoritarian regime, proven WMD capability, bellicose, and aggressive rhetoric, and the high potential to further deteriorate into an unstable failed state. However, it should be noted that other states share the traits and would also qualify as the intended target of this war game scenario, like the cases of Syria or Pakistan. (here is the current list of Foreign Policy's failed states).
The failures experienced by the U.S. in the war games scenario were not due to a lack of strategy, technological capability, or troop levels, but rather the inability to implement the current strategy for WMD recovery and wage a conventional war. To achieve mission success, the scenario yielded a conservative estimate of 90,000 troops over a period of 56 days. Paul McLeary, of Defense News, attended the analytic review of the war game. He summarized the issues discussed by Pentagon officials,
"They're very concerned about being able to get troops who can deal with nuclear and chemical weapons where they need them quickly. And the fact [is] that over the past ten or twelve years, they haven't really invested in that capability so much. They've invested in counterinsurgency, ground vehicles, IED threats, but they haven't really spent a lot of time and money modernizing their nuclear and chemical troops."
This realization is something that I have covered, in part, with the rise of USSOCOM. The switch from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency (COIN) operations was precipitated by two driving factors present in the conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in during the post-9/11 era. The first was a change in the nature of the opposition forces the U.S. faced. In 2007 during a speech at the Council on Foreign relations, General Michael Hayden stated that,
"The Soviet Union's most deadly forces — ICBMs, tank armies — they were actually relatively easy to find, but they were very hard to kill. Intelligence was important, don't get me wrong, but intelligence was overshadowed by the need for raw, shear fire power. Today the situation is reversed. We're now in an age in which our primary adversary is easy to kill, he's just very hard to find."
The second factor was the U.S. response to this tactical shift by opposition forces was a publication overseen by General David Petraeus in the form of Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency. For those who are unfamiliar with this publication, it was, and remains, the foundation for the U.S. play book in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and is famous for reviving the "winning the hearts and minds" mantra. This ground breaking work addressed urban guerrilla warfare along with the changing face of modern warfare.
While "hard to find and easy to kill" and COIN applied to U.S. engagements in the Middle East, they likely will not wholly transfer over to a potential conflict with North Korea. The hermit country is an intelligence black hole, making the complete details of their nuclear weapons program shrouded in mystery even for the CIA and Dennis Rodman. In the event of a real conflict, the securing of WMD sites, biological, chemical, and nuclear alike, is of paramount importance. Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, did state that "[North Korean] special forces would be prepared to fight you like Taliban, or the Iraqi insurgents" and number around 200,000. Furthermore, the nuclear facilities are located in proximity to heavily populated cities, so the potential for civilian resistance is also increased. Interestingly, this civilian issue was mitigated when humanitarian aid drops — like food, water, and medicine — were dropped in rural areas, the civilians flocked to the drop sites.
The U.S. military's use of drones, unmanned aerial systems, and strategic bombers could cripple North Korea's site defenses, but a significant troop force of 90,000 is still required. In this area, the U.S. faced its most alarming realization. McLeary, referencing the war game strategy, stated that "V-22 Ospreys zoomed U.S. soldiers deep beyond the border, but with reinforcements so far behind they were quickly surrounded by the enemy and needed to be pulled out." The implication is that, with reinforcements so far behind and the need for extraction nearly immediately, high casualty rates are almost certain. However, the V-22 Osprey has been fraught with issues since its inception.
The counterinsurgency concerns, in conjunction with North Korea's similarities to the USSR's defense strategy, paint an interesting picture of North Korea's armed forces and strategic locations. However, assessments regarding the amount of support that China could provide to North Korea, beyond just diplomatic and economic support, during an actual hot conflict were not disclosed in the report. North Korea's nuclear sites are heavily fortified by weapon defense systems and lie in rugged terrain. Essentially, North Korean targets should be considered "hard to find and hard to kill."
I find myself echoing the sentiments of fellow PolicyMic pundit Jinyoung Park, in that these harsh revelations underscore the importance of finding a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions. North Korea's rampant mistreatment of its own citizens, with their policies almost like they were torn out of Orwell's 1984, combined with the decades long famine plaguing the civilian population, any outcome to this situation still remains quite grim and macabre, even if war can be avoided.