The North Korean Threat and ‘High Intensity War”

By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

The United States has fought relatively slow-motion wars or “slo mo,” land wars for more than a decade and a half. This does not mean American and Allied combat troops have not experienced the violence and threats commiserate with engaging against a nasty and skilled enemy.

It does mean that the tool sets and concepts of operations are very different and harken back to wars prior to this generation of warfighters.

Not since the Vietnamese War has the United States Military really had a peer-to-peer technologically adept opponent.

And during that war, the Vietnamese put U.S. pilots clearly in harm’s way by shaping their own version of multiple means of trying to destroy U.S. aircraft. From flying capable Russian fighters, the Mig-21J was actually a more advanced close in fighter then the F-4J. But perhaps the biggest deadly surprise was North Vietnam’s Air Defense Artillery capability, from the ground up. Whether facing guns or missiles, or enemy fighters for US pilots the sky over Vietnam was a very deadly place to be.

After the war in Hanoi in 1994, Ed Timperlake was able to meet some Vietnamese Army Air Defense (ADA) commanders. In 1994 the war was over so when they expressed their Air Defense pride at in defending their country, I listened intently. After all the Vietnam Air Defense mission had been the most technologically adept fighting force in that combat domain for the 20th Century. It is often said by experienced “Asia Hands,” never underestimate the Peoples Republic of China for they are very clever, but underestimate the Vietnamese at ones mortal peril for they are very smart.

With their national capital attacked from the sky, North Vietnam’s Air Force embraced the Soviet interceptor con-ops of rigid Ground Control Intercept (GCI) doctrine, until they learned from practice that the approach did not work effectively.

Soviet GCI doctrine was what could be called today in the American Military as “kill chain linear” thinking,.

At the height of the air war over Vietnam, successful Vietnam fighter pilots followed a very different approach Being very smart and combat adaptable the North Vietnamese evolved into what today would be called “Kill Webs” concept of fighting. The term wasn’t exactly in their language as “Giết Webs” but sadly for a lot of fellow American combat aviators they had success.

As one source characterized the Vietnamese approach to dealing with American airpower:

The threats had a synergistic effect. The small arms and automatic weapons fire drove the aircraft out of the low altitude arena to higher altitudes where other AAA, SAMs, and enemy fighters were more effective.

 At the same time, the heavier AAA, SAMs, and fighters drove the aircraft back down to lower altitudes where those threats were less effective but the small arms fire was murderous. But the most effective North Vietnamese air defense had always been weather.

The North Vietnamese created an integrated air defense system focusing on rapid interconnected Target Acquisition and then executed Target Engagement by empowering the kill shot being made by different “payloads” guns, exploding flack, missiles and fighters to protect their homeland. There approach was to focus on payload-utility by the kill web, rather than a hierarchical kill chain.

There were several “take-aways” from Ed Timperlake’s conversations in Hanoi 1994 when he was representing the Vietnam Children’s Fund in building the first of now fifty one schools pro bono:

  • The officers and troops manning both Air Defense Artillery Batteries and Missile launch sites were highly selected troops, especially the officers. Often both skilled and sons of North Vietnamese Military/Political leadership class.
  • The Russians (Soviet Union) did not hesitate to allow the Vietnamese access to their state-of-the art systems. PLA military equipment considered “modern” wasn’t.
  • The Russian “tattle-tale” ships present in the middle of the US 7th Fleet Yankee Station, chasing the carrier tracks for launching “Alpha Strikes” (as many aircraft heading feet wet as possible) were invaluable sources of strategic and tactical advanced warning.
  • The Vietnamese ADA commanders perfected not only radar tracking of both arty and SAM guidance but they also knew when to not put signals in space.
  • The Soviet Union Interceptor/Fighter engagement strategy, of much more rigid Ground Control Intercepts was a real weakness during the Cold War.
  • The flexibility of having an integrated ADA doctrine, both active and passive was very successful inside a total Air Defense Umbrella was effective and actually avoided fratricide.
  • They recognized U.S. Air Power was a war winning deciding factor which required them to shift from the Soviet kill chain approach to their early version of the kill web.

It was also evident from their perspective that U.S. domestic politics during the Vietnam War was the asymmetrical weakness to be exploited ultimately leading to the NVA Flag being raised over Saigon in April 1975.

It is not just about the technology; it is also about the political dynamic within which the technology is used which can shape a significant war winning strategy.

The nature of what it felt like to fly against the North Vietnamese “kill web” was captured in an interview we did with the leading USAF “Ace” of Vietnam Chuck De Bellevue.

And this sense of reality in dealing with a peer competitor needs to inform how we shape our way ahead in dealing with the challenge of peer competitors as we shift from a primary focus on the land wars.

Question: Chuck, did your raw gear and did your “tron” warfare (short for all electronic warfare capabilities) in those early days, useful both for a warning and in other ways such as disabling SA-2s and other missiles as far as a tracking solution?

Can you talk a little bit about that and what you had available in those days?

Answer: In the F-4 D model we had a 107. It provided good warning and it also saved my life a couple times.

Question: Was it visual and audio?

Answer: On the raw gear, it was yes. Audio gave me a rattlesnake in my headset.

If the missile was in the air the raw gear itself would start flashing at you.

And then we had a scope and if it was a missile in the air, you’d get a moving break in the strobe.

Question: All of this was coming into your eyes and ears. And then did you have to physically do something in a cockpit to activate any kind of countermeasures or was it just visual – calls to make turns break hard, break – how did you handle the engagement process? 

How did the airplane handle it?

How did the “trons” handle it?

Answer: We usually kept our jamming pods in standby. There were repeater pods and they would talk if they heard anything. I didn’t want anybody to know where I was. So we kept them in standby.

We had an occasion to go up to Yen Bai about 70 miles north of Hanoi. We used that as a holding point because Intel said there were no SAM sites there so you could see – on a clear day you could see the river.

One night, there was loop in the river that you could see it pretty easy. So we used to use that as our holding fix. And we loosened up the formation a little bit for me to kill ten minutes. So we loosened up the formation in this holding pattern and as soon as you rolled out going away the raw gear lit up – when I was sitting down in the cockpit doing something – probably planning on the next moves into Hanoi.

And all of a sudden I got a rattlesnake in my headset, raw gear was flashing, and instead of looking up I reached down and turned both jammers from standby to on as I’m looking up.

And had I done it the other way around looking up first I wouldn’t have been here, in between me and three, and there was just about enough room to put a missile between us.

It was an SA2; and that missile was followed by his buddy. And you know how things slow down in combat–Well, I could see their designation on the side of the missile. I couldn’t read it but I could see it.

Question: Are you saying you’re over an area that Intel said that there were no active SAMs?

Answer: Yes but they had mobile SAMs back then. They moved two mobile SAM sites in the bay area and they locked them optically and kept them close to the ground. The missile is non-guided for the first six seconds.

After that the booster falls off and then the antenna is now able to receive signals. And at that point, they fished them up into us. And at that point they were right under us too.

But the decision time was in nanoseconds.

Now with a new administration in power, it is time to really focus again on peer-to-peer high intensity warfighting and how to prevail.

With this forceful return to having to think about how to prevail in a high intensity conflict that now includes much more complex global nuclear weapons threat, there is no gentle transition from “slo mo” to high intensity threats. We need to refocus now and time is very short.

A key element of preparing for the kind of threat posed by North Korea clearly has been missile defense. But missile defense by itself is not enough – there needs to be integrated C2 for the strike and defense force to deal with a state like North Korea.

C2 integration is crucial to allow for the U.S. National Command Authority to have options across the Pacific chessboard to shape the battlespace in order to prevail in times of conflict.

And to do so, requires integration among missile defense systems to provide for integrated solutions across the battlespace.

Adversary missile strikes cut across domains from strategic and tactical “defense” in protecting infrastructure and combat platforms in a classic defense strategy to a more proactive role to enabling more effective strike capabilities by the offensive forces. The challenge in the Pacific demands more and more ADA to enable offensive strike con-ops.

Integrated C2 across the missile defense domain allows for leveraging the particular strengths of individual systems but allows the Combatant Commander to mitigate weaknesses of any particular system in shaping a battlefield wide approach.

There is the need for essentially fixed point defense for facilities, such as airfields and other fixed targets up to and including defending strategic continuity of government sites.

But there is only so much hardening and dispersal that can be accomplished, and tragically there are many soft targets, which cannot be hardened.

This is the situation on the Korean Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ), which on the North Korean side is anything but “demilitarized.”

The issue of preemption is always on the table, but America really tries to avoid shooting first. A combat capable Air Force flying from protected air fields and Carriers can use air strikes to take out the adversary’s missile strike force, but “surprise” launch is always a factor especially if not fully mobilized and “hot pad ready.” The melding of active hardening with aviation “Hot Pad” ready aircraft as well as sea-based cruise missiles is something the American military does very well.

And U.S. Army ADA must be well positioned and ever ready. It is an insurance force that can be a real advantage in prevailing during a “high-intensity” initial engagement and in high intensity conflict the first actions can shape the outcomes.

During a visit by Robbin Laird to the Pacific in 2014, the importance of shaping integrated options and integrated C2 for the offensive-defensive enterprise was highlighted by the then PACAF Commander, “Hawk” Carlisle who later became head of the Air Combat Command and by the Commanding General of the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, Brig. Gen. Daniel Karbler.

The two Generals underscored that there was clear imperative to integrate air and missile defense systems throughout the Pacific to enhance combat effectiveness.

According to General Carlisle: “The PACCOM Commander has put me in charge of how we are going to do integrated air and missile defense for the Pacific theater, which represents 52% of the world’s surface. This is clearly a major challenge and is clearly both a joint and coalition operation.”

In an earlier interview, Brigadier General Daniel Karbler, 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, highlighted that the task of the Army role within an integrated enterprise as follows:

The role of having active defense or an interceptor force is to buy time for [Lieutenant] General [Jan-Marc] Jouas (7th USAF Commander in the Pacific) or General [Hawk] Carlisle (the PACAF Commander) to more effectively determine how to use their airpower.  It also allows the National Command Authority to determine the most effective way ahead with an adversary willing to strike US or allied forces and territory with missiles.

General Carlisle focused on the way ahead to achieve the overall integrated air and missile defense mission designed to achieve the objectives outlined by BG Karbler.

We are pursuing an approach that combines better integration of the sensors with the shooters with command and control.  

Command and control are two words.  

The way ahead is clearly a distributed force integrated through command and control whereby one develops distributed mission tactical orders (with well understood playbooks) reflecting the commander’s directions and then to have the ability to control the assets to ensure that the sensors and shooters accomplish their mission.

The U.S. has deployed a number of key missile defense systems to enhance the capability to defend the force. This includes bringing THAAD to Guam; Pac-3 into Japan, Aegis deployed at sea theater wide. In fact, each of these systems – individually — has been highlighted by the US Department of Defense as part of the response to the North Korean threat.

As important as these individual systems are in an of themselves, there is a key need to get on with integrated missile defense which then can be combined with the PACOM Commanders strike force to ensure maximum effectiveness against a real and present danger.

The importance of integrated C2 for a missile defense capability within an overall offensive-defensive enterprise could also be a key contributor to providing tools for a more effective political response to peer competitor threats.

Clearly, crisis management will be a key part of dealing with any challenge like North Korea.

If the National Command Authority has an integrated capability deployed throughout the Pacific this provides a range of options when working with allies, rather than having to rely on systems on allied territory which may or may not be available at the optimal time during a crisis.

In slow mo acquisition thinking, we can take years to get integration done; but with the arrival of a different era, one of peer competitors, and second nuclear age powers, such dragging of feet on building out integrated software solutions to shape a reliable common defense capability is a near term priority.

And because we are talking software upgradeability, whatever the near term capability which can be deployed, it can grow over time as the integration from the ground up further develops.

The US Army has been developing an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System which clearly can provide for the foundation going forward; without such a system we are left with a Tower of Babel approach to integration which makes little sense in dealing either with the clear and present danger of North Korea or the threats from peer competitors or other Second Nuclear Age powers.

To deal with high intensity threats modernization needs to be combined with mobilization. By having several different locations of builders of missiles within the defense industrial complex geographically dispersed ensures the ability to ramp up missile production. This is a crucial part of getting ready to deal with a high tempo threat.

At the same time by working software commonality across the C2 system, the force commander can then leverage the diversity of launch systems to get a significant punch to the defensive part of the offensive defensive equation.

Cacophony in C2 systems needs to be replaced by an integrated software solution moving forward into which the different defensive launch systems can participate to give the combatant commander the kind of options he or she needs to deal with the near term or longer term threats.

The future is now; we need to move forward on integrated C2 for the defensive forces enabling the offensive-defensive enterprise.


Bookmark this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *