This blog was written by CSM (Ret) Rick Lamb, Global SOF Director of Military Relations, after he visited Seoul, South Korea in May 2019. Read Part 1 of the Blog here.
Sadly, we’ve been at war since most of us can remember.
I fear we’re losing our advantage, and our competitive edge in technology is dwindling. Today you can buy on the open market capabilities only we used to possess. We own the air, own the sea, own the night, and get our wounded to a hospital within the “Golden Hour” in places like Afghanistan. But against peer and near peer nations, it could be a different story. China and Russia are no joke. They know they can’t beat us in a fair fight, but they’ve been watching us. They’ve been training and aggressively trying to mitigate our strengths and leverage our weaknesses.
As they get better, we lose the luxury of time–we won’t have 200 days to set the theater. I think those days are gone. We will need friends: a strong network, a coalition. We did not anticipate the initial North Korean invasion and the subsequent Chinese intervention in 1950, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the attacks on September 11, 2001. We also underestimated the rise of ISIS and the carnage that followed in the vacuum we left after our pullout from Iraq in 2010. I’m not hacking on the Intelligence Community–I was a member of that community for 12 years. Sometimes we fail to recognize or adequately weight the tippers, sometimes leadership fails to listen, sometimes politics intervene. I wouldn’t bet lives on our ability to spot the next trigger in Korea.
There is a reason China went to the moon and is weaponizing space. It’s to drop satellites, take away our edge. We’ve grown comfortable, and overly reliant on our technology, our communications, and our PowerPoint. It’s our Achilles heel. During my last exercise with SOCKOR in 2017 we locked hard drives into a safe – as was the SOP – and the safe failed to open the following morning. While the safe cracker worked to gain us access, we had to resort to butcher block, legal pads, pencils (so you can erase mistakes), and couriers. I thought that was the highlight of the exercise. I wish we had planned for that contingency. It’s hubris to think nothing changes – it’s criminal to not train and prepare for worst case scenarios.
For Task Force Ranger, the fight in Somalia impacted the way we trained for the remainder of our careers. We conducted multiple missions using the same profile because it worked. Every mission was successful. Having said that, we failed to modify our tactics after a Blackhawk from an adjacent unit was shot down with a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). We also began to take shortcuts by modifying our packing list. We removed back plates from body armor, reduced the water load for quick turn-around missions, and condensed the number of night vision devices on daytime operations. On 03 OCT 93 everything that could go wrong – did go wrong! We were tied to a piece of terrain – speed and maneuver no longer provided us security or an edge. It got dark and protracted.
After Somalia we always had casualty play and took key leaders out of the fight to allow junior leaders to make decisions under stress. I hope we still do that! It’s hard to train like that because we normally like smooth exercises, quick wins, with no mistakes.
Units that are trained and ready will generally always win.
LTG (R) Hal Moore and CSM (R) Basil Plumley came to FBGA months before we left for Somalia to brief us on the Ia Drang Battle in 1965. We had assembled senior leaders from Regiment and 3d Ranger Battalion for the briefing, but they made us go back to the Barracks and get the Privates, because they said leaders will get killed and the Privates will carry the fight. After that, I regularly dusted off the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. It’s full of lessons on how well-trained units win and untrained units get soldiers killed. Moore and Plumley did not take another casualty once they executed the basics – formed a perimeter, assigned interlocking sectors of fire, dug-in, registered Artillery and Mortars, and leveraged rotary wing lift to keep them resupplied.
In 2017 we looked hard at what it would take to fight on the Korean Peninsula – “The PEN”. Our Allies were conducting reconnaissance of Non-combatant Evacuation sites and updating their plans. Component Commanders came over for briefings and planning sessions since most of their forces had not looked at Korea in many years. We visited Tunnel 3 and Gloster Hill to get a feel for mission sets and the terrain. Many Commanders had the same comments – after 16 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, their formations would need to modify their Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, and take a hard look at their Physical Fitness and Communications to fight on the PEN. There was a sense of urgency and a willingness to resource – right up to the time when negotiations with North Korea began and we seemed closer to peace. As it began to look promising, we again throttled back – Deja vu!
The National Security Strategy and Defense Strategic Guidance directs that we build and fight coalitions, and we’re lucky in Korea. We have United Nations Security Council Resolutions, a Command Structure, and Allies who have agreed to return during hostilities as United Nations Sending States. However, I would argue that our systems for sharing, storing and passing classified information fall short. We also tend to build more Secure Compartmented Intelligence Facilities (SCIFs) instead of investing in purpose-built facilities to facilitate coalition planning and operations.
There’s probably enough Policy and Regulation to support this guidance, but we fail to prioritize and foster steady-state relationships before hostilities start – this tends to breed risk aversion. Our Foreign Disclosure processes tend to remain centralized which makes them extremely slow and generally useless for targeting. The last two Commanders in Korea attempted to revitalize the United Nations relationships with much success. It’s a hard slog that I’m sure GEN Abrams is also looking at.
We are a Nation divided by grievance.
Lastly, we are a Nation divided by grievance–deeply in debt, war weary, with a split Congress and an Executive Branch under siege; it doesn’t instill confidence. Having said that, we’ve been here before. In the late 1960’s the nation was divided by grievance, we had race riots in our major cities, Leftists were bombing government buildings and assassinating Police Officers–and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen, and the Black Panthers were arming themselves. We came off the Gold Standard which allowed us to go deeper into debt, the Nation’s youth were protesting in the streets in opposition to the war in Vietnam – and Nixon was under siege for election fraud and corruption.
In 1973, he needed a quick win on a campaign promise, and he went Curtis LeMay “Old School” by bombing North Vietnam to the Peace Table in Paris. The North signed the Paris Peace Accords and we got everything we asked for – Victory! In fact, January 23rd, 1973 was VV Day, Victory in Vietnam Day. The North would withdraw troops and recognize South Vietnamese sovereignty. The US would withdraw combat troops and we agreed to replace South Vietnamese military hardware– bullet for bullet–tank for tank– plane for plane–in the event North Vietnam resumed hostilities. We also promised to come to the aid of the South with air power. In 1974 Nixon resigned as President under duress, the Congress changed out, and reneged on our promise to the South Vietnamese.
In 1975 the North invaded the South, and more South Vietnamese were killed during the purge than in the previous 10 years of conflict. Tens of thousands were placed in re-education camps, and hundreds of thousands were displaced as refugees. The vacuum we left was filled by a Communist rampage that spread to neighboring Cambodia and killed 2 million people, about 25 percent of the population.
We saw what happened in Vietnam with a “House Divided”, and the vacuum of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. We’re currently negotiating peace with the Taliban and attempting to leverage diplomacy with North Korea. I’m thinking–we need to steel ourselves!
To my favorite TSOC–I love you guys and gals–keep kicking ass! Do not let off the throttle and remember who you are, where you come from, who you represent, and why we are in Korea. With the reduction in resources almost certain to continue–and two missile tests, the breakdown of negotiations, a trip to Russia by Kim Jung Un, and the seizing a North Korean cargo ship–all within the last few weeks–we are prime to relearn –yet again–some hard-ass lessons!
It was great to see you again!