Spinning the Top: American Land Power and the Ground Campaigns of a Korean Crisis

By Johnson, John; Gericke, Bradley T. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2015 | Go to article overview

Spinning the Top: American Land Power and the Ground Campaigns of a Korean Crisis


Johnson, John, Gericke, Bradley T., Joint Force Quarterly


Gashed from the yellow earth and scarred by lacerating wire bound to steel posts, the moment Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) comes into view, you cannot avoid the impression that you are witness to a crime. In a way, you are. The DMZ is an ominous wound from an unfinished conflict dividing the Korean Peninsula and serving as a boundary between incarceration and freedom. It carves its way between Korea's sharp-sloped green hills only 20 short miles from the megacity of Seoul and its surrounding environs with its 25 million people who, after decades of economic development, are enjoying increasingly prosperous lives. The DMZ both signifies suffering already endured and foreshadows violence yet to come. It represents a status quo inter-bellum, which cannot endure. It is like no other place in the world. And the complex strategic and operational challenge that it poses to America's joint force is likewise daunting.

The fact that war has not yet returned to the Korean Peninsula is in large measure due to U.S. security assurance. In close and enduring partnership with the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK), American military power has to date tempered hostilities and assured all actors that the cost of military ambition would be high. By no means, however, is the tumultuous history between the states and peoples of this critical region finished, nor should the absence of major war in recent decades be seen as a diminished mandate for U.S. military deterrence, shaping activities, and operational readiness.

In every so-called balance of power, stability is a constructed outcome that puts competing interests in suspension. Stability is not an accident, and it requires active intervention to endure. Like spinning a top, sustained intervention in the form of applied force is necessary to keep the thing going. If the top loses its spin, equilibrium is lost. For more than 60 years that force has been applied in Korea on the ground by American troops. They have been Northeast Asia's key guarantors of stability. They have kept the top spinning. (1)

But now a young leader sitting atop the North Korean regime threatens anew what has become fashionable to blink at: escalatory conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The standoff there is not simply a relic of the Cold War or a quaint regional affair whose consequences can be held distant from American shores. The implications for American security and prosperity are global and increasingly urgent. War in Korea would inflict a terrible toll, and the United States could not avoid the butcher's bill.

For the joint force, and for the U.S. Army in particular, a clear-eyed consideration of the high-intensity demands of a 21st-century war in Korea is overdue. We must be clear about the fundamental nature of a war waged on the Korean Peninsula. A centerpiece of U.S. joint campaigns would be a ground war--American boots on the ground in Asia. And those ground forces, as members of a joint force in partnership with our ROK ally, would be called on not only to prosecute multiple, often simultaneous operations to achieve the essential military objectives necessary to defeat North Korean military forces, but also to secure the North's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the enabling components of WMD networks, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the population, and assure order to set the conditions for the return of civil authority. Thus, if war erupts, it would be extraordinarily complex and dangerous.

Accomplishing these tasks would require much of our Armed Forces. In addition to the layered threats posed by the North's armed forces, the deeply isolated political and economic character of the North Korean state means denial of air and sea environments alone would be necessary and enabling, yet not sufficient to the prosecution of a campaign on the peninsula. Land dominance would be essential to military success. (2)

The Strategic Environment

While not recently in the forefront of military planning, Asia is a familiar battleground. …

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