Keeping Watch on Korea

June 1, 2004

To see how edgy things can be in Korea, one need go no farther than “Big Coyote,” a hill that offers a panoramic view of Kunsan AB, South Korea, home of USAF’s 8th Fighter Wing.

A recent visitor on that windswept height looked down in one direction and saw row on row of advanced F-16 fighters all parked in hardened, individual shelters, ready to go into action on a moment’s notice. Elsewhere, Army Patriot air defense missiles sat in hardened revetments, cocked and ready to shoot at attacking North Korean missiles and aircraft.

Not far away, vast quantities of munitions lay stashed away in berms and machine guns were evident in strategically placed defensive bunkers.

That was just the visible part. After a few minutes, heretofore invisible Air Force security forces, camouflaged and fully armed, emerged from the woods of Big Coyote. They were standing watch in subfreezing weather to deal with North Korean commandos, possibly infiltrating from the nearby Yellow Sea.

To reach Big Coyote, a North Korean fighter aircraft would need only about 15 minutes, and a ballistic missile much less. That means Kunsan is within easy reach of a chemical weapon attack.

In Korea, the mission is “live,” as they say. Even though Kunsan lies 140 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—the 2.5-mile wide and 150-mile long boundary that separates North and South Korea—security forces must remain vigilant against attack. North of Kunsan, the problem is even worse.

Kunsan is one of the last “warrior bases,” where everyone is on an unaccompanied remote tour, totally focused on the mission. The airmen of Kunsan prepare daily to defend the base, receive reinforcements, and take the fight north. That mission applies equally to all airmen in South Korea.

The Air Force operates in many dangerous locations, but its mission in South Korea is unlike that of anywhere else in the world. The prospect of a new Korean War is always imminent and makes an assignment to the peninsula distinctive.

Airmen stationed there train daily as if an invasion has begun. Upon arrival, one of the very first things an airman receives is gear for protection against biological-chemical agents. Exercises are frequent, and newcomers often are greeted by their commander in gas mask and chem-bio gear. Such precautions are a fact of life on the peninsula.

New airmen in South Korea quickly learn the mission and the central role they play as the first defenders. They also know that, immediately after they respond to an attack, they must receive a large influx of follow-on forces.

“Everything is more intense,” said Capt. Charles Huber, an F-16 pilot at Osan AB, South Korea, just south of the DMZ. He said that the focus is on interdiction—often training for “worst case” situations such as attacking enemy targets protected by heavy air defenses.

The Air Force’s presence on the peninsula is large. Roughly 9,000 airmen (part of a total commitment of 37,000 US troops) are there to help deter North Korea and defend South Korea.

The airmen stationed there joke that they can always find north—that’s the direction the Patriot missiles are facing. The Air Force recognizes the fragile state of affairs by exempting its forces in South Korea from participation in USAF’s Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) deployments.

Nearly every airman who deploys to South Korea serves on an unaccompanied one-year tour. (See “The One-Year Assignment,” p. 31.) While on the peninsula, said Gen. William J. Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces, airmen must “have a single-minded obsession” with their mission.

Commanders actually only get about nine months’ worth of productive time from each airman. Col. William C. Coutts, vice commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan, said it takes about two months to train airmen for the new assignment. Then, a month is lost when airmen depart for midtour leave. Some time is lost at the end of each tour, as personnel prepare for their next assignment.

Brig. Gen. Maurice H. Forsyth, commander of the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan, commented that forces in South Korea don’t have the luxury of saying “we’ll just anticipate getting backfills when we think the war’s going to happen.” He added, “We have to be ready to go.” So, for many years, the Korean Peninsula has been manned at 100 percent, with a few extra personnel added to cover gaps.

The Asymmetric Advantage

In 1953, an armistice ended the Korean War. Since then, sporadic skirmishes have resulted in the deaths of 484 troops—90 Americans and 394 South Koreans. Most have been killed in fighting along the DMZ.

The DMZ, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Seoul, features an impressive array of antitank barriers, guard posts, barbed wire, and minefields. US troops patrolling the DMZ are well aware of the sometimes deadly gamesmanship played by their North Korean counterparts.

One soldier expressed pragmatism about how demilitarized the DMZ really is. He wore an authorized sidearm to provide some sense of personal protection.

Nearby, the North Korean regime stations a mass of artillery, Scud missiles, and troops. Pyongyang also maintains hardened defenses and a complex, integrated air defense system. It has a decided numerical superiority over US and South Korean forces. And the frequent bad weather on the peninsula would, in some ways, aid an attack on the South.

US officials say that, in the event of a war, South Korea’s Army would carry the burden of defense. They say, though, that a new war would not be won through a clash of massed ground forces. Air forces are needed to launch a counterattack to ensure defeat of North Korea’s military.

It is through air and space power that the US and South Korea have an asymmetric advantage, capabilities that North Korea simply cannot match. The defenders have state-of-the-art fighters with precision weapons; advanced, realistic training; complete integration of ground and air forces; and shared intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities.

The Extent of the Threat

Pyongyang has learned from Air Force operations over the past 15 years, and it actively seeks to offset USAF advantages. The US ability to generate lots of fighter sorties led the communist regime to develop a special operations force whose primary mission would be to shut down airfields in South Korea. The effectiveness of US precision guided munitions inspired North Korea to build hardened tunnels. And US intelligence collection capabilities led Pyongyang to hide forces and weapon systems underground.

US officials believe that North Korea has some 11,000 hardened tunnels dug into its mountains, with the entrances facing north. These facilities house troops, artillery, aircraft maintenance facilities, and even airfields. The communist regime is putting underground as much military infrastructure as possible. In a war, that would mean airpower would have to find those forces and neutralize them.

The US and South Korea are essentially engaged in a war planning “shell game” with North Korea—because so many enemy targets can be secretly relocated. “That’s why precision munitions and stealth and cruise missiles are so important to us,” said Lt. Gen. Garry R. Trexler, commander of 7th Air Force and the senior USAF officer on the peninsula. These capabilities allow the US to strike not just at facilities massed along the border but deep into North Korea, where there is a “very sophisticated, integrated air defense system,” he said.

In recent years, Pyongyang had moved 1.2 million soldiers closer to the DMZ, according to US intelligence. “There’s a reason there’s a four-star general [heading US Forces Korea (USFK)],” said Osan’s Col. Mark A. Bucknam, 51st Operations Group commander. “There’s not another situation like this in the world,” he said.

North Korea is believed to possess several nuclear weapons, along with chemical and perhaps biological weapons. Consequently, Begert said the ability of the US forces in South Korea to function after a chemical or biological attack is “second to none.”

If North Korea were to launch an invasion, say US analysts, it would attempt to isolate Seoul and quickly sweep across the rest of South Korea, overtaking the defenders before the US could move in reinforcements from outside the peninsula. This massive attack would be spearheaded by a large-scale special operations assault targeting US and South Korean military and leadership facilities. North Korea has more than 100,000 commandos, and the US estimates that there may be as many as 3,000 sleeper agents living in the South.

Forsyth said North Korean infiltration of South Korea would be a key concern and a “second front” in a war.

The Strategy

As Osan and Kunsan quickly mounted counterattacks, they would be receiving an immediate flow of external reinforcements. In wartime, the two bases would at least double in capacity, as additional aircraft and personnel flowed in.

The first sorties would focus on enemy ground targets, said Kunsan’s Coutts. “We have a good idea” what the fixed targets are, he said. They include North Korean air bases, which host more than 1,600 aircraft, of which 800 are fighters.

Although North Korea does have a handful of fourth-generation MiG-29 Fulcrums, most of its fighters are obsolete. Its training for pilots is also limited. USFK officials estimate that the country’s pilots only train about 10 flying hours per year, leaving them poorly equipped to compete effectively against the better-trained US and South Korean forces with their significantly better aircraft.

Of greater concern are enemy air transport divisions. North Korea has about 300 An-2 Colt light transports and 300 helicopters that could be used to ferry commandos southward. They would be hit early.

The mobile target set is where the US and South Korean fighters would be most effective, said Coutts. Fighter aircraft would be directed against North Korean forces “out in the open and moving south, … exposed,” he said.

Capt. Sean Monteiro, an A-10 pilot at Osan, contrasted the situation with Southwest Asia, to which he had deployed three times before his assignment to South Korea. In the desert, said Monteiro, it is “very easy to pick out targets.” In Korea, even though pilots know what invasion routes the enemy is going to use, it is still “easy to hide,” he said. Monteiro said attack pilots spend lots of time “getting to know the land like the back of our hands.”

Forsyth said that knowing the enemy allows the US forces to be “more focused.” He added, “It’s an advantage for us.”

The Air Force is confident it can overcome the secrecy and deception techniques used by North Korea. “If you look at something long enough, you can determine what it is and what it isn’t,” Forsyth explained.

Battlespace persistence would be hard to achieve. In Gulf War II, USAF bombers succeeded by loitering over the battlespace and striking pop-up targets. In Korea, persistence would stem from sending large numbers of fighters over a target, in wave after wave.

“Over here,” Forsyth said, “persistence equates with continuous sorties.” Because of North Korea’s “much more extensive” air defense system, he noted, the Air Force “can’t just orbit over a target up there. Our persistence comes from continuous pressure—mission after mission after mission.”

The Primary Force

The source of those “continuous sorties” would be the USAF ground-attack A-10s and F-16s assigned to the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan and the two squadrons of F-16s—one for ground attack and one for suppression of enemy air defenses—with the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan. The F-16s have day/night, all-weather attack capability with precision weapons.

Forsyth pointed out that the A-10 and F-16 fighters, though highly capable, are somewhat old. The health of the A-10s is of particular concern, he said, adding that it’s a “fleet-wide issue.” Upgrades on A-10s have lagged, but Forsyth said, “There are some concepts that have been spawned … that will keep it a viable platform for years to come.”

Trexler, who called the A-10 a “good airplane,” said that, if USAF keeps it in the inventory, it must be modernized. “We need to get targeting pods out there, and we need to get [it] re-engined,” said Trexler.

The Air Force does have plans to make A-10 structural upgrades and, at some point, add new targeting pods for precision weapons. New engines may be in the future, as well. “The strength of the motor is good,” said Maj. Brad Tannehill, a maintenance supervisor with Osan’s 51st Maintenance Group, “but it’s been rebuilt too many times.”

The A-10’s age puts a burden on the maintainers, said Tannehill, because “a certain number [of aircraft] have to be ready to go up every night.” But at the end of the day, one crew chief said, “It’s a Hog, … [and] the Army guys love it.”

According to Begert, USAF doesn’t expect any major changes in its force structure in South Korea in the near term. He did say, though, that the Air Force needs “to put Predator [unmanned aerial vehicles] in Korea.”

The Predator’s combination of tactical intelligence and quick-strike capability is tailor-made for Korea, said Begert. He believes 7th Air Force will bring the UAV in the theater in the near future.

Osan hosts the Hardened Theater Air Control Center, which serves as a combined air control center—the largest in the world. The HTACC has 10-foot-thick walls and is designed to survive blasts from the largest munitions in the North Korean arsenal. It is from there that Trexler, serving as the bilateral air component commander, would run an air war featuring integrated operations by South Korean and US Air Force aircraft, as well as Navy and Marine Corps airpower.

Osan is also home to one of USAF’s five major air operations centers.

With the aid of these two centers, Trexler said, “our ability to synchronize effects across the spectrum is better” than before. “We are able to see a lot,” he said, adding, “We know when ground forces are moving, we know where they’re moving, we know when airplanes are flying.”

Working air operations from a combined center is indicative of the integration that exists not only between US and South Korean air forces but also between air and ground forces. War plans envision air elements working hand in glove with ground forces. Combined training is the norm.

Airmen on the Ground

Facilitating the air-ground coordination are several hundred elite battlefield airmen. With 7th Air Force’s 607th Air Support Operations Group are tactical air control party (TACP) controllers and combat weathermen. They live and work with US Army units at Army camps, most within a dozen miles of the DMZ.

The TACP airmen of the 604th Air Support Operations Squadron, headquartered at Camp Red Cloud, coordinate close air support and other air strikes. In addition to routine CAS operations against targets such as tanks, one of the TACP’s primary missions in South Korea is to support the Army’s counterfire mission by targeting air strikes, at the beginning of an invasion, against North Korea’s massive artillery capability. The goal is to limit Pyongyang’s ability to saturate South Korea with chemical weapons and high explosives.

The 604th also runs USAF’s only hardened-bunker air support operations center.

Combat weathermen of the 607th Weather Squadron, headquartered at Yongsan Garrison, work in eight different detachments, directly with Army units. In the European theater, most USAF combat weathermen support Army aviation units. In South Korea, they also support tank, artillery, and infantry units. These battlefield airmen provide detailed weather data in a country known for its diverse weather patterns, especially in the mountainous DMZ area, and they often do it on the move.

A third group of battlefield airmen are USAF’s combat communicators. In South Korea, they are part of the 607th Combat Communications Squadron (CBCS), headquartered at Camp Humphreys.

The combat communicator job is to establish and defend command, control, communications, and computer capability in the field for Air Force and Army units.

Always Training

Daily training flights allow the four USAF fighter squadrons at Kunsan and Osan and 29 fighter squadrons of South Korea’s Air Force to integrate tactics and techniques.

While that type training is invaluable, Forsyth said that “in an ideal environment, every mission would be exactly like you would do in wartime.” Such realistic training takes place “at least once a month,” he said, when large air and ground force exercises take place.

Once each year, US and South Korean forces conduct the Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration (RSOI)/Foal Eagle Exercise—the largest defensive military exercise in the world. RSOI/Foal Eagle participants, who include many forces from US units outside South Korea, number about 9,000.

USAF and South Korean air units also have routine “buddy exchanges” that provide another means to ensure maximum versatility in wartime. In the exchanges, troops swap bases and practice “turning” each other’s airplanes for sorties.

Pilots tout the realism of the training, which includes close coordination with USAF’s battlefield airmen. During mission preparations for one typical day at Kunsan, F-16 pilot Capt. Matthew Casey noted that his flight would be doing both air-to-air and air-to-ground training. Casey had completed fighter weapons school at Nellis AFB, Nev., before arriving at Kunsan. He was clearly enthusiastic about being able to fly the F-16 almost daily.

It is not easy to conduct such extensive training in a densely populated country with limited range space for live-fire activities.

For example, there are few places where A-10 pilots can actually shoot the Warthog’s powerful gun. However, Forsyth points out, limited access to adequate training ranges is not unique to Korea.

The density of the population complicates matters for USFK war planners. In the event of war, USFK officials estimate, approximately 22 million noncombatants would be stuck in the middle—trying to get out of the way. Unfortunately, they would be moving through an area where tens of thousands of US and South Korean forces would be heading north as North Korean units headed south.

PACAF, as a whole, must deal with “the tyranny of distance,” said one USFK official, but the forces in Korea contend with the opposite problem: “the tyranny of proximity and congestion.” USFK officials estimate that there would be more than one million casualties if war broke out.

Ultimately, USFK anticipates that the US and South Korean advantages mean an invasion would be stopped north of Seoul, despite the limited defensive space available. One intelligence official said, “In the event of a war, we will not return to a stalemate.”

The One-Year Assignment

One thing that makes an assignment to South Korea unique is that nearly everyone deployed to the peninsula is on a one-year, unaccompanied tour. This means most of the airmen spend a full year away from their families, and while that is a downside, it also means they can concentrate almost exclusively on their jobs.

“A year away from the family is a year away from the family,” said Col. William C. Coutts, vice commander of Kunsan’s 8th Fighter Wing, known as the “Wolf Pack.”

Kunsan is considered a remote assignment, so no families come along with the deployed airmen. At Osan, about 100 miles farther north and near the capital city of Seoul, 96 percent of the airmen are on one-year remote assignments.

The Air Force considers the one-year assignment a necessary evil.

A standard 90-day AEF rotation would not be long enough to master the intricacies of the mission. Tours to South Korea are considered permanent change of station assignments, even though a standard PCS tour lasts about three years. A one-year PCS is considered short enough for families to cope with the separation.

A common theme expressed by the younger officers is that they focus on their mission as a way to get through the difficult assignment. Airmen “don’t have to go to PTA meetings” or worry about mowing the lawn, Coutts said. They generally live on base, unlike many Stateside and European assignments where they can live off base with their families.

For years, the US facilities in South Korea have ranked among the “worst living and working conditions” of all of DOD’s permanent basing locations, said Army Col. Daniel M. Wilson, chief engineer for US Forces Korea (USFK). Investment in US facilities in South Korea suffered primarily because many believed the end of the Cold War signaled that North Korea’s communist regime would simply “go away,” said Col. Mark A. Bucknam, commander of the 51st Operations Group at Osan. Instead, “things didn’t change much here,” said Bucknam.

USAF is undergoing a $250 million facelift at Kunsan. The base already received a $4 million expansion to its fitness center and another nearly $4 million in improvements to its dining facility. As the US moves thousands of troops away from the DMZ, current plans also call for construction of new facilities in the Osan area.

Despite some decrepit facilities, living and working with like-minded airmen helps create a “small town atmosphere,” said Capt. Brett Comer, an F-16 pilot at Osan. Everyone is focused on the job—one that requires 14-hour days, including weekends, said Comer.