Eric Margolis Is Scared; Let's Daydream About Korea

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Eric Margolis is scared about Trump and Korea.
I have previously written that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of war in Korea, only because we might not have information that the Pentagon does have.  That doesn’t mean a potential war in Korea would be any less devastating, it just means that the Pentagon might have delusions we’re not aware of.

We may feel that “tensions have calmed” in Korea, as eyes turn distractedly towards Afghanistan.  Don’t let that give you relief.  Has Kim Jong Un turned in his nuke keys? No.  Has he stopped building missiles?  Has the US declared that it’s now willing to permanently accept the North’s nuclear arsenal, and accommodate it?  No – though whispers are floated that “we may have to”, this is hardly an official government policy.  Nothing has changed, except the focus of public attention and maybe Trump’s own political tides.
One thing that really helped me see the true nature of American imperial policy was imagination.  Scott Horton’s show brought context to a lot of policy that’s missing from the conventional narrative.  He likes to pull out the old quotes from the past, the previous actions and statements of the same actors making different claims today.  We often, thanks to the narrative, fail to imagine the much more cynical reality.
I employ imagination in a similar “narrative busting” fashion.  Remember that prior to 1910, or 1930, the public-at-large would have been very shocked to have learned what world lay in store in the near future.  Public narratives rely on information from the past, and the expediency of the present.  They can contrast greatly with what the future can bring.  Look at 9/11.  Which average Americans were ready for it on September 10, 2001?
With this in mind, I want to take a moment to actually imagine a war in Korea.  I’m not offering an analysis of insider information.  Instead, I’m only offering an alternative to the known public narrative, a contrast to leave us better prepared for possible futures.  As an Air Force veteran, I at least know a thing or two about the sort of planning involved with this sort of operation.  In fact, during training, Korea was a common scenario for practicing war (the reason is very pedestrian: the Air Force is still a cold war doomsday response team to a degree, our basic doctrine oriented to dealing with 1980s threats, and North Korea is the last bastion of cold war era military systems to practice against).
Suffice it to say, I have experience dropping many virtual bombs on a virtual Korea (and a virtual Florida, Arizona, Afghanistan, etc.).
The Pentagon recently floated the idea of “surgical strikes” against North Korea, against nuke sites and leadership.  It could be that China’s response decisively nixed this idea for the time being, but let’s examine why the Pentagon might even suggest such a course of action.
North Korea would probably have as part of their defensive systems a number of Soviet-era components and equipment.  How does this equipment work?  Here’s a very thorough if technical blog post about it.
North Korea has what’s called an integrated air defense system, or IADS.  The concept of an IADS is that each individual defense platform: anti-air guns, surface to air missiles, etc. only have relatively small areas of coverage.  What the IADS does is combine these pieces into a larger network so that there’s an area or web of total coverage, with strategic locations receiving additional coverage.
When high-level military planning hopes to do isn’t simply to send super-advance magic laser bombs to hit each missile launcher and tank in North Korea.  Rather, invoking Clausewitz, the goal is to identify the weak points of the whole system and then target those.  IADS relies on consistent command and control.  Consider that, if some parts of the system can’t talk to other parts, then you might have a situation where entire components remain undamaged, but effectively dysfunctional.  What I mean is, in theory right?
I honestly don’t have insider knowledge about this, since our training was based not on real intelligence in many cases, but simply invented scenarios using copy/paste virtual Soviet systems.  But, the fact that the Pentagon is talking about surgical strikes makes me wonder and theorize whether there might be a “command and control” strategy of war.  My training dealt with air defense systems, but I assume that communist military forces’ command structures parallel the air defense organization overall.
That is, perhaps a “surgical” strike that targets key aspects of command and control could render the North Korean military dysfunctional.  This could include the activation of intelligence assets, turncoat generals and so forth waiting for the “head to be cut off”.  We just don’t know.
Imagine: North Korean border commanders at the DMZ declare for the
“unified Korea” (not the US), after Kim Jong Un is declared dead and the nukes destroyed by B1-B bombers (even if this is not actually confirmed yet).  Then, South Korean battalions march North by invitation and supplement these generals’ troops, with the additional promise of American air support.  Wham!  These North Korean commanders just became the new power of North Korea.  You can figure out the rest.
So, all this talk of how devastating a conventional war would be – that’s true if it’s going to be a mere slog.  Crazier things have happened.
Look at Gulf War I.  Iraq’s forces were thought to be number 4 on the Earth! (US, USSR, North Korea, Iraq).  They were thought to have one of the best air defense systems in the world after the big powers, and had an army of hundreds of thousands.  What happened?
1990s era US military technology tore Iraq’s air defenses to paper overnight.  A few dollars of cash and over half the army defected and surrendered!! (heh, I maybe be confusing this with the other Gulf War)  This was a big deal in military circles.  It’s the reason for America’s hegemonic hubris.  Iraq’s military forces were very much considered top class, and what the war proved was how militarily dominant American conventional forces could be.
In a true slog, I don’t know how American military would do, but the Pentagon still has the right toys to target the weak points.  That’s part of the reason they don’t care so much about the conventional fight.  As a former C-130 cargo airlifter, I was once often concerned that we didn’t practice our fighting capability more.  There was more of an emphasis on basic competence, then personnel issues.  The reason, I came to figure, is that our ability to “fight” was inconsequential.  Wars would be won with stealth, bits and bytes, trons, nukes, and so forth.  We were the waterboys.  As are most soldiers.  I’m not sure if the generals really even take these 10-year occupations that seriously.  Sure, people die, and the natives don’t like us – but is China or Russia in Afghanistan?  Well, mission accomplished then!
The problem with the Pentagon’s best laid plans is that they incur a huge, totally neglected, human cost.  And, I don’t know that the generals have a sense of politics or constitutionality.  That is, war is about beating the enemy.  Why worry about the concerns of the people?  It’s just not a focus.  It may come to bite them, or it may not.
But, let’s use our imaginations so we’re not caught of guard about Korea.

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