The Pentagon is intensifying military planning for war on the Korean Peninsula despite the apparent thaw between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile program.
Pentagon officials say the military planning has increased in recent weeks and involves reworking and refining Op Plan 5027, as the war plan for a conflict against North Korea is called.
The activity is being done by planners in the Pentagon in coordination with officials from U.S. Forces Korea, the military command in South Korea. The objective is to determine how best to execute President Trump’s order to eliminate the North Korean nuclear program.
The stepped-up planning comes as Pyongyang signaled this week that it is ready to hold talks with the United States and South Korea on its nuclear program.
Current administration policy toward North Korea is to impose maximum diplomatic and financial pressure, resulting in dozens of new economic and financial sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong-un in a bid to force him to back down. Intelligence officials assess that the sanctions are beginning to have an impact on North Korea’s already weak economy.
Mr. Trump took credit for the latest overture and tweeted on Tuesday that the response indicated “possible progress.” But he also said the United States remains ready to use force.
“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” the president tweeted. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
Pre-emptive U.S. military action is widely viewed as producing devastation for South Korea and possibly Japan, which both have U.S. military bases, and could quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange. North Korea’s military readiness was discussed on Capitol Hill at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said North Korean threats to turn the South Korean capital of Seoul into a “sea of fire” are not propaganda.
“I’m not sure of the phrase, but it would be a significant amount of casualties,” Gen. Ashley said.
North Korea’s army uses outdated Soviet-era design weapons, including massive amounts of artillery deployed close to the Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas.
They include self-propelled artillery and guns and howitzers ranging in size from tubes with 122-millimeter to 152-millimeter barrels. Also deployed are North Korean-produced Koksan guns of 170-millimeter caliber. Rocket artillery includes at least three calibers of multiple rocket launchers, in 107-, 122- and 240-millimeter sizes, many mounted on trucks. Gen. Ashley said the majority of the artillery weapons are well-maintained.
“Now, there is going to be a degree of atrophy over time, but our expectation is those systems will work,” he said.
The North Korean military also has a problem with ammunition and parts for its weapons because many are not widely available in the international arms markets.
Asked about North Korean troops’ military readiness, the three-star general said: “We’ve watched their winter training exercises. They’ve shown a level of discipline and expertise.”
“Kim Jong-un is far different from his father in the level of rigor that they’ve applied to their training regime to make sure their crews are ready,” Gen. Ashley said.
WHITE HOUSE DOUBTS ON NORTH KOREA TALKS
A senior administration official told reporters this week that North Korea’s latest overture on resuming nuclear talks is being viewed cautiously by White House national security officials. The main worry is that the North Koreans will engage in nuclear talks solely as a means of reducing the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang.
The administration of President George W. Bush made concessions in a bid to coax the North Koreans into denuclearizing, including lifting some sanctions and removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The North Koreans pocketed the concessions and eventually walked away from the talks — all the while building up its nuclear warheads and missiles.
“The president’s policy all along has been pursuing maximum pressure in order to change their calculus to help them understand that denuclearization is the only path to a better outcome,” the official said, adding that the administration has always kept the door open for talks.
“What we are looking for is concrete steps toward denuclearization, not a rehashing of old positions that did not lead to that outcome,” the official said.
On North Korea’s offer to halt missile tests in exchange for new talks, the official suggested that would not be enough.
“Even if North Korea were to refrain from test-launching missiles, they still have an enormous industry that is proceeding apace with building, to borrow the words of their leader, mass-producing nuclear warheads and missiles,” the official said.
“That could continue in the absence of them not doing test launches,” the official added.
If North Korea wants to hold nuclear talks to buy time for further weapons development, then “the talks are not going to get far,” the official said.
“We’ve seen that movie, and we’re not about to make the latest sequel with a very bad ending.”
CHINA’S NEW AIR-LAUNCHED MISSILES
In addition to hundreds of road-mobile and silo-based missiles of different sizes, ranges and trajectories, China is also developing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile fired from underneath a bomber.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley made the unusual disclosure of the air-launched ballistic missiles in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“The [People’s Liberation Army] is also developing and fielding numerous advanced, long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, some capable of reaching supersonic speeds, and operated from ground, air, ship and submarine platforms,” Gen. Ashley stated. “These capabilities are being augmented with two new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.”
Air-launched ballistic missiles are new weapons for the Chinese. Most air-launched missiles are either air-to-air weapons or air-to-surface bombs or cruise missiles. Launching a ballistic missile from an aircraft could provide long-range conventional or nuclear-strike capabilities not provided by ground-based or sea-based platforms.
China military expert Rick Fisher said the DIA director appears to be referring to China’s H-6N bomber, a specially modified aircraft used for launching ballistic missiles. Chinese sources have listed the missiles fired from the H-6N to be air-launched versions of the 620-mile range DF-16, 932-mile range DF-21D with an anti-ship ballistic missile warhead, and a shorter-range version of the 2,485-mile-range DF-26.
The bomber could be used for fire anti-ship ballistic missiles at U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and — with aerial refuelings — possibly against military facilities in Hawaii.
“The People’s Liberation Army likely expects that by coordinating anti-ship ballistic missile strikes with submarine strikes and additional airstrikes, they can overwhelm Navy carrier defenses,” he said.
The bomber could also be used to fire China’s direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles in attacking low-Earth-orbit satellites.
“China’s building of ballistic-missile-launching bombers increases the urgency for the United States to invest in a very long-range next-generation fighter to succeed the F-22, to start a crash program to develop a very long-range air-to-air missile and to increase actual radar and intelligence sharing among its Asian allies, including Taiwan,” Mr. Fisher said.
To deter North Korean aggression against South Korea or Japan, and Chinese aggression against Taiwan, it is urgent for the United States to develop and deploy new tactical nuclear arms to Asia, he added.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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