Inchon, and Operational Maneuver From The Sea

The surprise North Korean invasion of South Korea steamrolled over lightly armed and poorly trained South Korean troops. Even the addition of US airpower and troop units did little to slow the onslaught. The defenders were soon pushed back to a small perimeter defending the port of Pusan. Pusan port was both their logistical lifeline, and presented the escape route should the perimeter fail.

But all was not lost. By the end of the summer of 1950, significant US troop units were available for commitment. Further, the North Korean army had stretched its lines of communication about as far as they could go.

Conventional military thinking called for the deployment of fresh forces into the Pusan perimeter, where eventually they could stage a counterattack, break out of the siege, and force the North Koreans back.

But a glance at the map would show that Korea is a peninsula. With the long shorelines on both coasts, North Korea had been forced to concentrate its ground forces at the Pusan perimeter, and its lines of communication were lightly defended.  These flanks were ripe for attack. And the commander of UN forces in Korea, General of the Army Douglas McArthur, was a past master of amphibious assaults, having used them brilliantly in World War II.  To our eyes some 60 year later, the choice to stage an amphibious assault seems easy.

Except…

The large scale demobilization of the services after World War II included a deliberate choice to mothball virtually all of the Navy’s amphibious warfare capability. The advent of nuclear weapons had convinced Navy planners (and Army planners as well) that any large scale amphibious landing would present a concentrated target tempting an enemy to use atomic weapons against it. A single atomic weapon would not only doom any landing, it would impose catastrophic losses of both shipping and manpower. And so the ability to land an expeditionary force against a defended coast had largely been foregone.

Further, while a brief glance at the map shows Korea as a peninsula, a detailed examination shows it to have some of the most inhospitable coasts, almost completely unsuitable for landings with the technology of the time.  Further, with the slashing of the US amphibious fleet, logistics over any assault beaches would be impossible. It’s one thing to land a force, it’s a far more difficult task to keep it supplied.

General MacArthur, after careful study, chose to conduct an amphibious assault, and chose the port of Inchon (which serves the South Korean capitol of Seoul) as the objective.  Located about halfway up the peninsula on the west coast, Inchon was lightly defended, and was a sufficiently deep envelopment that the North Korean army could not easily shift forces from Pusan to Inchon. But Inchon lies at the end of a long, notoriously treacherous channel with some of the worlds most complex tides. Further, rather than assaulting across open beaches, the troops would have to attack across a seawall onto open paved areas with little or no cover and concealment.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had grave misgivings about the risks involved. Finding, mobilizing, training and deploying sufficient amphibious shipping and landing craft would be an enormous challenge, and the risks involved. If the Inchon channel was mined, or should the landing force otherwise falter, the invading force might be destroyed in detail.  The failure of any landing attempt would almost certainly cause support for our actions in Korea to collapse.

But the prospect of cutting off the North Koreans and destroying their invading army was tantalizing, and despite their doubts, the Joint Chiefs allowed the commander on the scene to follow his own course.

And so, on this day, September 15, in 1950, elements of the 1st Marine Division, with troops of the 7th Infantry Division in follow on waves, were landed by the US Navy at Inchon, in what is widely hailed as a strategic masterstroke, and one of the most decisive victories ever.

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The landings came as a strategic and tactical surprise to the North Koreans. With their lines of communication threatened, coupled with a breakout by UN forces in the Pusan perimeter, the North Korean army was soon fleeing South Korea in disarray. Had the landing forces at Inchon moved faster to retake Seoul, the North Koreans might have been trapped and destroyed. As it was, they barely managed to retreat not only from South Korea, but northward through their own country to the line of the Yalu River, where soon “volunteers” from the People’s Liberation Army of China would come to their rescue, and dashing hopes for any rapid victory and a lasting peace.

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First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, USMC, leads the 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines over the seawall on the northern side of Red Beach, as the second assault wave lands, 15 September 1950, during the Inchon invasion. Wooden scaling ladders are in use to facilitate disembarkation from the LCVP that brought these men to the shore. Lt. Lopez was killed in action within a few minutes, while assaulting a North Korean bunker. Note M-1 Carbine carried by Lt. Lopez, M-1 Rifles of other Marines and details of the Marines’ field gear. Photo number NH 96876. Image Courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.

Mastery of the seas and the ability to land forces upon hostile shores gives a ground commander a freedom of maneuver that allows him to choose the time and place of his assault, and usually provides him the opportunity to attack an undefended or lightly held position. The use of such maneuver to unhinge an enemy is a key to the operational art, whether it be the “Hail Mary” sweep to the west during Operation Desert Storm or the amphibious envelopment at Inchon in 1950.  Since that time, the US has been careful to maintain both the shipping and the expertise to allow it to conduct amphibious assaults worldwide.

Goldwater Nichols ‘86 in the Post-Post-Cold War Era

Galrahn’ Information Dissemination is always a good place for some deep thinking. Especially since we so often disagree with him. Keeps us on our toes, as it were.

And G’s added another contributor to his site, Lazarus. Lazarus’ first piece takes a look at the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that established our current Department of Defense organization and how the Joint Chiefs and the regional Combatant Commanders interact and interface with the civilian National Command Authority.

A good example of a piece of history that ought to be re-examined by historians is the defense reform movement of the 1980s and the notable legislation it produced. The effort’s primary product, the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 has for all intents and purposes become canon law for the U.S. military. It is referred to reverently in U.S. Defense publications as if it were the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta. Its legislative creators thought that empowering the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his staff to manage service issues would end inter-service bickering, prevent future Vietnam wars, and free the nation from the tyranny of military novices like Lyndon Johnson picking military targets over lunch. Critics like Navy Secretary John Lehman countered that the legislation would not cut defense costs and would prevent the individual military services from effectively allocating resources and personnel to their respective areas of warfare expertise. What resulted was more of a compromise. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) gained considerable power at the expense of the military service chiefs but the organization of the JCS remained unaltered despite the efforts of reformers to replace it with a council of retired officers who would not have service-centric views.  Although intended to improve Cold War military planning and organization, it made its strongest claim for legitimacy in a post-Cold War conflict. Goldwater Nichols was widely touted by its legislative backers as one of the keys to victory in the 1991 Gulf War by preventing excessive service chief and civilian meddling in the conflict and organizing the disparate U.S. military service into a victorious joint force. Buoyed by these pronouncements Goldwater Nichols sailed on through the 1990s and 2000s, unlike many other Cold War-era programs and organizational doctrines without significant review.

One change G/N brought was that the Chairman of the JCS became the sole primary military advisor to the President, as opposed to the individual service chiefs. The idea was to reduce interservice rivalry. As Lazarus notes, it has been a shift from rivalry to simply protecting each service share of the defense dollar pie.

It also greatly increased the command authority of the combatant commanders (COCOM)  in the field. Effectively, while the Chairman is the principal military advisor, he has no command authority over the COCOMs. In operational command, he’s just the messenger between the NCA and the COCOMs.  The chain runs from the President to the SecDef to the COCOM.

The individual service chiefs, such as the Chief of Staff of the Army or the Commandant of the Marine Corps likewise have no command authority over operations. Instead, they are responsible for providing ready, trained, equipped forces to the COCOMs to fulfill their missions.

G/N had two other major influences. First, “jointness” was greatly stressed, in an effort to increase the interoperability of the services. This has lead to a requirement for officers wishing to advance to flag rank to serve time on a Joint Staff.  To some extent, reducing parochialism is a good idea. But it has also lead to a fair amount of “make work” postings, inventing jobs so people can get their ticket punched. And there is a risk that time spent outside a warfare specialty will lead to a dilution of the very skillset these officers are prized for. Tom Clancy once had one of his characters, Bart Mancuso, asking himself how serving on a joint staff better prepared him to serve as COMSUBPAC, the commander of all Pacific Fleet subs.

G/N also greatly pushed for a more centralized planning in procurement for the DoD. Intended to reduce duplication of effort, we would argue instead that the need to justify every Program of Record through the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) has merely added complexity to an already byzantine process.  Some commodity areas are well suited for centralized procurement, such as foodstuffs and medical supply. But can we not safely assume that when it comes to major end systems, the Navy is probably better suited to determining what they need in a new destroyer than a panel of civilians backed by a staff from all the services?  How many votes at the table should the Air Force get when the Army starts looking at what it wants from its next generation Ground Combat Vehicle.

Among the “working class” officers of the services, mostly field grade officers, there is a strong sense that G/N has lead to an explosion in the numbers of General Officer/Flag Officer positions (and of course, their bloated staffs!) that is wholly inconsistent with the smaller actual field forces available to the country. The easy example is our Navy currently having more Admirals than ships. All the services are somewhat guilty.

Is it time to scrap Goldwater/Nichols? Probably. I mused at Information Dissemination that the organization should probably be shuffled every 20 years or so just to shake things up.

But the question isn’t so much “Should we replace G/N?” but rather, “What should replace G/N?”

I’m certainly open to suggestion.