Can Allies Deter North Korea by 2020? Updating OPLAN 5015

By Danny Lam

OPLAN 5015 was intended to deal with a very limited nuclear & ballistic missile threat. It is now obsolete and urgently need updating by the Trump Administration.

At the current rate, within a few years, it will no longer be an asymmetric war by a conventionally well armed South against North Korea armed with a sizable nuclear arsenal.   The world balance of power will tilt greatly in favor of DPRK after 2020.

There is still time to prevent this.

A credible conventional deterrence against North Korea assume that the PRC and Russia can be compelled to sit out any conflict on the Korean peninsula.

This is not far fetched as Russia is severely strained and with the right inducements, have much to lose and nothing to gain from intervention.

The PRC, on the other hand, will require substantial disincentives up to and including risking nuclear attack to sit idly by.

An arrangement for the neutralization of the Korean peninsula post bellum on the cold war Austrian model is not an unreasonable solution that can be acceptable to Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. Alternatively, the PRC will be compelled to have the Republic of Korea (ROK) allied with the US emerge victorious on their border potentially as a nuclear armed state along with Japan.

The US and allies must make clear to Russia and the PRC that (e.g.) if the DPRK attempted to fire a missile whose trajectory is aimed at CONUS or allies, that will be crossing the red line without confirmation that it is a nuclear tipped missile.

The Beijing regime, and particularly the Northern and Central theater commands must understand what the US and allies regard as neutrality, and breaches including cyber and electronic warfare will have consequences.

Particularly, offering safe haven to Kim Jong Un and his minions on PRC soil in bunkers will make it installations in PRC a legitimate military target.

In the interim period before the US and allies are ready, enablers of the North Korean ballistic missile program, whether it is Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, or otherwise must be compelled to halt or risk becoming belligerents.  Rather than rely on nearly useless tools like diplomacy or sanctions, the US and allies will have to put on the table credible threats of counter-proliferation of both conventional and nuclear weapons against each and every enabler of North Korea.

Once these diplomatic solutions are imposed, it paves the way for executing a conventional military option led by the US and allies to permanently eliminate the DPRK threat.

The plan will have two components: defensive moves aimed at preventing a successful North Korean attack on South Korean, Japanese, Canadian, Australian, etc. allies primarily through a ballistic missile defense system.

The offensive option will require, initially, a campaign to eliminate ready stockpiles of nuclear weapons, launchers, warheads, and facilities, etc. in a lighting campaign, and elimination of North Korean threats against Seoul and South Korea, followed by occupation and unification of Korea.

The urgency of this plan cannot be understated.

North Korean progress on ballistic missiles is progressing at a pace that will overwhelm any conceivable / affordable missile defense presently deployed by about 2025 or sooner.

Missile defense is costly, fraught with uncertainty and risks, with unfavorable math for the defender.   While progress is being made on options to sharply lower ballistic missile intercept costs, they are nowhere ready even if the Trump Administration made it a top priority.

A purely defensive missile defense strategy is out of the question without a plan to eliminate the launchers.

In order to achieve this rapid buildup of conventional military capabilities before DPRK becomes too strong and risky to dislodge, a conventional arms buildup need to start now and be ready by 2020.

Dithering and whining allies petulantly inching up defense budgets or defrauding their peers with Enron style defense accounting is not what a defense buildup to credibly take on DPRK is about.   Imagine the consequences if Germany or Canada that now spend 1% GDP restricted defense spending in 1937 to an aspirational goal of 2% GDP in a decade or longer.   This is about doing what it takes to win.

Meanwhile, allies like Canada at present is fielding no credible defense against the North Korean threat in violation of NATO treaty obligations.  Occasional diplomatic protests and campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council do not stop the arrival of a nuclear warhead delivered by ICBM.  After Secretary Mattis’s ultimatum, intransient allies like Canada is likely to be targeted for US sanctions after the NATO summit in May.

But suppose US allies stepped up to their treaty obligations?

South Korea is the most critical piece of any conventional military option.   South Korea, rather than the impoverished nation it was in 1950, is now a modern industrial economy with well trained, equipped, and led troops maintained at a high level of readiness.

South Koreans have to understand that a DPRK attempt (whether successful or not) to deliver a nuclear warhead on CONUS will do what Pearl Harbor did to US resolve.

Nothing is off the table.

Koreans stand to lose the most and cannot sit out the conflict. Having the ROK lead the ground war is essential for many reasons.  It avoids the problem of deploying ground troops from Japan and limit the need for casualty adverse US and allied troops.

But, presently, South Korea is not equipped, trained or postured to deal with invasion and occupation of a nuclear armed DPRK.

South Korea and the US will need to expand their insertion force capacity to seize, occupy or destroy usable nuclear devices, missiles and facilities at the outset of a conflict.   The large number of DPRK nuclear sites, breadth and depth of defense and dispersal, calls for a five to ten-fold expansion of South Korean special forces capability.  Their regular forces must be expanded and augmented with reserves modelled on nations like Israel, Norway, or Switzerland.

Transfers of long lead time items like heavy armor, vertical and sea lift capabilities to South Korea can rapidly bulk up their capability and transform South Korean forces from primarily being defensive in posture to an offensive ground maneuver force well equipped to invade, secure and occupy DPRK.

Likewise, existing and planned South Korean Aegis destroyers can be upgraded and armed for BMD and perhaps augmented by Aegis Ashore systems at the most vulnerable points.

During the 2003 Iraq War, the US made the mistake of underestimating the number of troops required to maintain order after the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — which only require a modest force.   South Korea must accept the cost of doing whatever it takes for a successful invasion and occupation of DPRK even if it means having the ROK economy ground to a halt for a period of time.   Allies must be prepared to support ROK.

The US, Japan, and allies like Australia, Canada, and Europeans will have to shoulder the burden of an intense air campaign as well as missile defense.  Japan can substantially increase their BMD capability by acquisition of more interceptors, accelerating the deployment of Aegis destroyers and more tightly integrating THAAD, Patriots, and Aegis systems — particularly with South Korea.   Japanese industry must be prepared and willing to support South Korea rivals should industrial production be disrupted by a war.

At present, Japan ASDF, like South Korea, have little ground attack capability and no capability for delivery of bunker busters like GBU-57(A/B) MOP. Though Hard and Deeply Buried Target Defeat System (HDBTDS) can be adapted for the existing Japanese fleet with time and money since JASF are primarily tasked for air defense.

Transfer of much of the existing B-52 fleet to Japan and South Korea will enable them to utilize both MOPs and HDBTDS weapons in a non-threatening posture to the PRC and Russia. Since both nations are more than capable of shooting down B-52s, they pose little threat unless the air defense system is destroyed.     Providing that PRC and Russia remain neutral, B-52s can operate effectively over North Korea once Air dominance is achieved.

A key issue is what to do about fair weather allies like Canada and Germany. While Germany can plausibly be “let off” with substantial financial and in kind contributions to allies, Canadians are directly threatened with nuclear missile attacks cannot if the Trudeau regime do not field an adequate defense. This issue will be addressed separately.

What about the US?

Nearly two decades of war against insurgencies rather than peer competitors have weakened the US.   Sequestration wrecked havoc on readiness that cannot be solved without sizable infusions of cash and manpower for maintenance and repair.

While the issue or readiness differs case by case, is it not a better idea to think hard about wholesale transfer of large quantities of old equipment to allies so as to free up resources, particularly manpower and maintenance expenses, to buy new equipment?

This applies to aircraft, ships, and combat vehicles that allies who are increasing their defense budgets can use now to plug gaps before new equipment can be delivered.

The B-52 is an excellent example of a platform that while still good, is well past its “best before” date.   Compared to the projected maintenance requirements of a modern aircraft like the B-21 Raider or the F-35 Lighting II, the B-52 is extremely labor and maintenance intensive by any commonly used metric.   Lack of concern for availability and the use of military personnel tends to obscure the high cost of maintenance and repair labor, which if billed at commercial equivalent rates, would skew the calculus further in favor of new equipment.   That is before consideration of the order of magnitude improvements in cost per desired effect with new platforms like the B-21.

Similarly, advances in stealth technology have greatly improved the maintenance requirements of the F-35 vs. legacy stealth platforms like the F-22 and B-2 bomber.   Measured by cost per desired effect rather than cost per flight hour, the improvements are dramatic. The F-35 recently demonstrated a 15:1 kill ratio, far outstripping the performance of legacy fighters.

With declining costs that place F-35s at roughly the same range as, e.g., F/A-18 Super Hornets, it is by far the least cost option per desired effect.  This argues for accelerated introduction of new F-35s into the USAF and retirement of legacy platforms.  That is particularly an attractive option to free up equipment for allies that need to inexpensively and rapidly rebuild their capabilities.

Arleigh Burke destroyers is another platform in which acceleration of the present construction program for Flight III vessels will free up the older ones to be refurbished, updated, and sold to allies like Canada that need to field a missile defense stat.  These moves, and others, are doable to substantially broaden allied capabilities within 2 to 3 years — rather than decade long procurement cycles.

The Trump Administration is confronting a situation similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.   War is on the horizon and recognized to be only a matter of time before it breaks out. War weary allies are rearming as fast as they are able to financially.

The US, just emerging from the Great Depression, is in no mood to spend money or become entangled in European wars. FDR did what he could to aid allies limited by the Neutrality Acts. His impassionate appeal for rearmament in May, 1940 and subsequent events culminated in the United States entry into World War II — with Pearl Harbor erasing any doubt of the right thing to do.

Waiting for a nuclear attack from DPRK to respond is not an option when we have the opportunity and means to prevent it.

But to do so, we need to act now.

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