In just a few short decades, South Korea, once one of the poorest countries in the world, has pulled itself out of poverty and transformed into an economic powerhouse.
Often called the “Miracle on the Han,” referring to the major river that runs through Seoul, South Korea now boasts the world’s 13th largest economy and is one of the most wired countries on the planet. Of its roughly 51 million people, nearly half live in the greater Seoul metropolitan area—a bustling, modern mega city that is home to Samsung, one of the world’s top smartphone producers. Four of the top five shipbuilding companies are based in South Korea, and the country is the No. 1 producer of flat-screen televisions. There are construction projects nearly everywhere you look and small cities are taking the place of farmland across the country. Those who were stationed on the peninsula in the late 1990s to early 2000s say it is virtually unrecognizable today.
The Republic of Korea’s military capabilities also have made impressive strides. The ROK air force includes some 65,000 airmen and 700 aircraft, and its government continues to invest in modern equipment with the purchase of F-35 strike fighters, Global Hawks, Patriot and missile upgrades, as well as AH-64 Apache helicopters.
Despite the significant economic, technological, and military progress, the Korean War between the democratic south and the unstable, dynastic communist regime in North Korea never actually ended. For 63 years the Korean Peninsula has operated in a state of armistice—not war, not peace.
Real, near, persistent
The armistice helps maintain stability in the region, but North Korea is a very real, near, persistent, and lethal threat capable of inflicting significant damage on the South and the surrounding region.
That’s why the motto, “Fight Tonight,” is ingrained in the US forces stationed there, from the lowest-ranking airman to the Army four-star, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, in charge of US Forces Korea.
At Osan AB, South Korea, Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Bergeson, 7th Air Force commander and deputy commander of US Forces Korea, said, “We send everybody up to the DMZ [demilitarized zone between North and South Korea] because when you can stand there and look face-to-face with somebody that’s on the other side it really brings it home to you.” He continued, “When you understand the vast array of long-range artillery right along the DMZ, and the thousands and thousands of forces that are right along there, you get the sense that we’re at armistice and not at peace.”
North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world, with roughly 70 percent forward deployed “fairly close” to the DMZ—located not even 50 miles from Osan. Its artillery force is the largest in the world: 13,000 systems, pretty much all of them hidden within 11,000 underground facilities. Capt. Kevin Liu, the deputy director of the commander’s action group at Osan, said long-range artillery is typically a tactical weapon, but in South Korea it’s a strategic threat—especially the North’s 170 mm and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers, posing a significant threat to Seoul.
“If fired in volleys they would be able to strike Seoul and the surrounding area, potentially causing mass civilian casualties, significant collateral damage, and gross economic destruction,” said Liu.
North Korea is believed to have 800 theater ballistic missiles with a range of capabilities and “enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons,” according to a 7th Air Force briefing.
Although its aircraft are mostly holdovers from the Korean War, “they have a lot of them and quantity is a quality all of its own,” said Col. Rob Bortree, commander of the 607th Air Operations Center at Osan.
The underground facilities create additional problems because if a crisis were to arise US and South Korean forces would first have to find the weapons and then figure out how to attack, Bortree pointed out.
“The current assessment is [North Korea] will attack with very little to no notice,” he said. “They can’t sustain offensive maneuver and depth, so … their initial plan is to get in and push us to the table to get concessions.”
The North’s 60,000- to 100,000-strong special operations force is often overshadowed by its aggressive ballistic missile and nuclear development programs, but it is “one of the largest SOF forces on record and they have the ability to move them very quickly south,” said Bortree, who noted it “will be a significant challenge” if a crisis erupts.
North Korea has the world’s second largest chemical weapons stockpile. Most of the buildings at Osan have heavy duty blast doors that when shut create an isolated and pressurized environment allowing airmen to continue to operate during an attack.
“Those aren’t just for show. They are for a reason,” said Bortree. “One of our assumptions is that we will be fighting in some type of chemical environment, in addition to short notice and everything else. And then the nuclear capability is also out there as something else we have to think about.”
North Korea’s state-run media warned of a more advanced type of nuclear test last year as it was expanding its test site at Punggye-ri, located in the northeast. In January, the North claimed to have detonated its first thermonuclear weapon. US Forces Korea officials said the nuclear tests produce much lower yield than what the North actually claims, noting the January test was either a “failed attempt or it was only intended to be a boosting device.”
Still, North Korea is the only country this century to test nuclear weapons and the tests are becoming alarmingly more regular.
A few weeks after Air Force Magazine’s visit, some 25,000 US service members, ROK forces, and participants from nine nations gathered on the peninsula for the start of Ulchi Freedom Guardian—one of the world’s largest military exercises. It is focused on defending the ROK. At the time, North Korea threatened to turn the South into a “heap of ashes through a Korean-style pre-emptive nuclear strike” if US and Republic of Korea forces showed “the slightest sign of aggression” during the annual military drill, reported NPR, citing a state-run North Korean media outlet.
Such amped up rhetoric has become a regular occurrence during and just before large-force exercises on the peninsula and military officials say they have gotten good at keeping an eye on the real-world threat while conducting the necessary training.
However, 7th Air Force Vice Commander Brig. Gen. Kyle W. Robinson said even with daily airborne ISR missions and intelligence briefs, it’s difficult to predict when or how North Korea will act.
“Unless they come out and tell us, the only thing we can really do is try to understand or guess at this point,” said Robinson.
“We don’t think they’ve actually achieved what they’ve planned. At the same time, they’ve shown slow but steady progress in increasing the yields of what they’ve tested so far,” USFK officials told Air Force Magazine in August. “They do have somewhat of a capability. It’s definitely not as mature as most recognized nuclear weapon states, but it’s something to take into account.”
On Sept. 9, the North conducted its fifth nuclear test, the second one this year, drawing strong rebuke from the United States and as well as other nations.
Since the Korean War no provocation has reached crisis level, but the US has a detailed pre-positioned air tasking order that maps out the first few days of conflict. It’s exercised regularly just in case. Everyone stationed on the peninsula knows exactly what their piece of the puzzle would be if the plan is executed.
“Seventh Air Force, when teamed with the Republic of Korea Air Force, is ready to deliver precise, intense, and overwhelming airpower,” said Liu.
Though the airspace in South Korea is roughly the size of Indiana, the air campaign in the early days of a second Korean War would be the “largest in modern history” and would include more than 2,000 sorties per day. That’s more than twice the sorties flown on the first day of Operation Desert Storm.
Accomplishing this plan would require forces already stationed on the peninsula, US forces from around the region, and from the 17 sending nations, said officials. (Sending nations are 16 countries that joined the US in committing in 1953 to the UN Command’s defense of South Korea.)
“As a result, ‘Fight Tonight’ is unlike in other places where you have time to build forces. … We have to be able to start the war and then bring everything into position to execute, so this allows us to be able to practice that full-scale movement,” said Bortree.
Because of the need to remain vigilant US forces in Korea are almost always exercising. A typical year includes some 30 exercises.
Exercise Vigilant Ace, first conducted in 2015, bridged the gap between strategic level exercises like Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian and the more tactical ones that lacked higher-level command and control. Vigilant Ace was specifically designed to practice the US’ ability to execute the pre-ATO, including quickly generating forces and accepting follow-on forces.
Unlike UFG, where the tactical piece is computer-based, airmen fly 24 hours a day during Vigilant Ace.
Last year’s exercise included Total Force units from Japan and Guam in addition to more than 20,000 US and ROK participants and over 200 on-peninsula aircraft. The playing field spanned eight bases in Korea and required the movement of some 1,000 personnel.
“ROK and US and other component assets integrate in a very realistic scenario in our training airspace to ensure that not only can we do the strategic to operational like we do in UFG, but we can also do the operational command and control down to those tactical wings,” said Col. Paul Kirmis, vice commander of the 607th AOC.
Col. Todd A. Dozier, 8th Fighter Wing commander at Kunsan AB, South Korea, said the operational tempo is definitely a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.
“Our mission remains deterrence. That’s our No. 1 thing,” said Dozier. “That’s why we focus so much on being ready. Readiness is how deterrence is affected. That happens regardless of world events.”
And there’s no doubt “events” on the peninsula have ramped up in recent years. Despite a series of high-profile launch failures, North Korea is aggressively developing a range of ballistic missiles, including everything from short-range to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just like it has with its nuclear program, North Korea’s missile program has demonstrated slow but steady progress.
Bortree said when he first arrived on peninsula he was briefed to expect a couple of North Korean launches a year, but now that can happen in just one month and is often repeated the next month.
On Aug. 23, one day after Ulchi Freedom Guardian began, the North launched what US Strategic Command believes to be a KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile off the coast of Sinpo. The missile was tracked some 300 miles, until it landed in the Sea of Japan. The launch took place less than a month after North Korea simultaneously launched two presumed Nodong intermediate-range ballistic missiles—an older missile typically considered to be a “tried and true workhorse.”
“The submarine-launched ballistic missile [was] considered by many to be a laughable notion several years ago. … It seemed a little beyond their capabilities,” USFK officials told Air Force Magazine. “It’s still probably not a successful system, but again, they are putting a pretty good amount of resources into it, especially relative to their economic capabilities.”
To counter such advancements, the US relies on a multilayered air defense system that will soon include the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system at the upper tier, Patriots for medium-tier missile defense, and the short-range air defense system at the lower tier, said Bergeson.
The US and ROK governments agreed to deploy a THAAD battery to South Korea in July. The anti-missile system, to be located in Seongju county in the country’s south, is slated to arrive sometime in 2017.
Bergeson said THAAD is a “purely defensive capability that’s needed in light of the increased development of longer-range ballistic missiles,” but there is still some opposition from the local community, mostly regarding possible radiation exposure from the system’s radars.
The US Army’s 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Osan also directly supports 7th Air Force. The brigade has Patriot Advanced Capability-3 hit-to-kill interceptors, with a seeker in the warhead, and are capable of hitting an incoming ballistic missile “nose-to-nose.”
“It’s pretty advanced technology. It’s like hitting a bullet with a bullet,” said Col. Mark Holler, 35th ADA commander.
The brigade also has the Patriot Guidance Enhanced Missile Tactical Ballistic Missile. GEM-T has a proximity-fused warhead interceptor that explodes when it gets close to an incoming ballistic missile, but does not directly strike it.
Holler said the Army is getting ready to field a new type of interceptor to South Korea, known as the Missile Segment Enhancement, or MSE. “It’s essentially a more capable PAC-3 interceptor with extended range and lethality,” said Holler. “I would say that it’s likely in the very near future that this brigade could actually have three types of interceptors ready to fire.” If that happens, the 35th ADA would be the first in the Army to have all three capabilities, he added.
De-escalation, however, is a top priority and airborne ISR plays a key role. The four U-2s attached to the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron at Osan fly eight- to 10-hour sorties several times a day. The multi-intelligence platform carries a high-resolution imagery and signals payload, as well as defensive systems at all times, said Maj. Daniel Collette, the squadron’s director of operations.
Unlike a satellite, the U-2 is a dynamic capability that can easily be redirected if a situation arises, providing the commander more flexibility, he said.
The Dragon Lady spyplanes provide “the best possible awareness” of North Korean activities, helping US leaders decipher Kim Jong Un’s intentions and providing warnings “when things may go awry,” said Col. John Rice, 7th Air Force director of ISR.
Flexible deterrent options are another de-escalation tactic implemented this year.
Days after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, in January, a B-52 from Andersen AFB, Guam, flew over South Korea at roughly 10,000 feet in a very public demonstration that was soon broadcast by news outlets around the world. The show of force by the heavy bomber—escorted by a US F-16 and a South Korean F-15K Slam Eagle—was intended to demonstrate the United States’ unwavering commitment to South Korea and to show North Korea the US is watching and there could be devastating consequences for its actions.
“The nice thing is it’s not extremely provocative,” said Robinson, the 7th Air Force vice commander. “It shows what could happen,” but it’s not like the Air Force is stationing the aircraft at Osan, which the North might see as a provocation by the US.
Just a Reminder
“The reality is it came, it did a low approach, and it [headed] back out so it was never stationed here,” Robinson said. “It was simply a demonstration of resolve and then it left.”
Almost exactly one month later four F-22s flanked once again by US F-16s and South Korean F-15Ks executed another display of force over South Korea in response to North Korean provocations. The Raptors, assigned to JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, had been conducting regular training at Kadena AB, Japan, when they were redeployed to South Korea.
“The F-22 Raptor is the most capable air superiority fighter in the world, and it represents one of many capabilities available for the defense of this great nation,” Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, then 7th Air Force commander, told reporters at the time. O’Shaughnessy is now commander of Pacific Air Forces.
Robinson said the F-22 flyover was “similar but not as visible” as the B-52 show of force a few weeks earlier, noting that it was meant more for an “internal audience.”
The US conducted a similar demonstration of force in September after the fifth nuclear test. Two B-1B Lancers deployed to Andersen, flanked by two ROK F-15K Slam Eagles from Daegu AB, South Korea, flew closer to the demilitarized zone than any other B-1 in history.
Col. Andrew P. Hansen, commander of the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan, said pilots are regularly briefed on what North Korea is doing. The F-16s and A-10s assigned to the wing fly at a higher rate than any other combat air force and Hansen said it’s important for them to understand the “why behind the readiness levels.”
The fact that “bad guy land” is roughly the distance from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Denver, really drives home how quickly things could escalate, said Capt. Adam Peterson, an A-10 pilot assigned to the 51st FW.
Congestion, proximity to the North, and Seoul’s booming real estate market drove a major infrastructure change that is finally nearing completion.
A $10.7 billion construction project at Camp Humphreys is almost done and US Forces Korea officials expect the majority of US troops stationed at the Yongsan Garrison in downtown Seoul to move there next year. Yongsan is the longtime home to USFK headquarters, but like the rest of the capital region, is within easy striking distance of North Korean artillery.
The local government wants to turn the garrison, located on prime real estate in central Seoul, into public parkland. (The US will continue to maintain a small footprint there.) The project is nearly 100 percent funded by the Republic of Korea and does not affect airmen stationed at Osan or Kunsan air bases.
Camp Humphreys, once a sleepy US base near the seaport city of Pyeongtaek, along the western coast of South Korea, is located about 40 miles south of Seoul and some 12 miles south of Osan Air Base.
Under the transformation the post will nearly triple in size from about 10,000 people to about 36,000, including military members, their families, civilians, and ROK forces.
The massive construction project, designed to accommodate the influx of personnel, will add an area roughly the size of the District of Columbia to the post, USFK officials said.
Both Osan and Humphreys are but a short missile or fighter flight from the North, however. “If you’re always worried about it, then you can’t train. Most of us are fairly confident that the force that’s here in the South is large enough and trained well enough that it’s going to deter any North Korean aggression,” said Capt. Zachary Krueger, another A-10 pilot assigned to the 51st FW.
That doesn’t mean the threat isn’t always on his mind.
“Every time you go up there to fly, it’s possibly one of the last opportunities we’ll have prior to wartime operations and I try to make it worth it,” Krueger said.