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.

File:Battle of Inchon.png

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.

File:Lopez scaling seawall.jpg

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.

Bomb North Korea?

Hardly a day goes by where I don’t find myself in disagreement with at least something from the Op-Ed pages of the NYT. Today is no exception. It’s far more rare that I find myself in agreement with the left leaning blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Today is an exception.

University of Texas Professor of History Jeremi Suri argues that the US should preemptively strike North Korea’s ballistic missile capability.

The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.

President Obama should state clearly and forthrightly that this is an act of self-defense in response to explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon. He should give the leaders of South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan advance notice before acting. And he should explain that this is a limited defensive strike on a military target — an operation that poses no threat to civilians — and that America does not intend to bring about regime change. The purpose is to neutralize a clear and present danger. That is all.

Erik Loomis at LGM notes:

China’s role in a potential war on the Korean Peninsula is hard to predict. Well then. Might as well just bomb North Korea and see what happens!

For that matter, we might just want to consult our South Korean allies on the matter, rather than just giving them advanced notice since, after all, the inevitably resulting war would take place on their turf. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and one of the densest metroplexes on Earth, lies within easy artillery range of North Korea. I’m not entirely convinced they’d relish being plastered by thousands and thousands of artillery rounds and rockets just based on a hunch that North Korea was doing more than its usual sabre-rattling-for-aid routine.

That’s not to say I don’t take the threat of a nuclear armed North Korea seriously. Just that any serious (or even the most amateur)  student of strategy  in the nuclear era* knows there are more options on the table than shoot/don’t shoot, today, at this moment in time.  I tend to agree with URR that willfully lying to ourselves that China is a strategic partner with a shared interest in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula is foolish. But that doesn’t mean we can’t point out to China that a full scale crisis holds greater risks to them economically and politically than it does to us, and maybe dialing it back a bit might help.  A steadfast refusal to submit to North Korean extortion for aid might be a good idea as well. And finally, if historians must weigh in on the matter, perhaps they should stick to reminding the Obama/Kerry foreign policy team of the parlous rates of returns that investing North Korean promises of good behavior in the past, when previous tantrums have been rewarded with food, fuel oil, and nuclear reactors.

*As opposed to nuclear strategy. Nuclear strategy is how to fight a nuclear war. Strategy in the nuclear era is how to avoid a nuclear war.

Tensions with North Korea

North Korea has a long, long history of being obnoxious. Long time observers have noted that threats, bluster, and even occasional small scale military action against South Korea have been (rather successful) negotiating tools of the Nork regime.

But the sense today is that Kim Jung Un’s grip on the levers of power in North Korea may not be as firm as his father’s, let alone his grandfathers.

I have to concur with this assessment. What is happening right now in North Korea has more to do with North Korean internal politics than what the North Korean government may feel towards the U.S., South Korea, or anyone else. But this is why the situation is dangerous. Osama Bin Laden felt that the only way that he could defeat the Saudi Royal family was to drag the U.S. into a shooting war against him …. hence 9/11. There may be some in North Korea who may feel that the only way to keep their grip on power is to instigate a conflict with South Korean and the U.S. …. hence all the talk of war and threats of nuclear attack. This is all just speculation, but I do know that when people in absolute power feel that their status is being threatened …. they are capable of anything. In the case of North Korea …. they are truly the last “Stalinist” regime …. and they all know that.

North Korea has also apparently decided that pretty much every foreign embassy should  pack up and go home.

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Galrahn at Information Dissemination has a great piece on the North Korean situation, escalation control/crisis management and seapower. He’s gotten a few technical details about Ballistic Missile Defense wrong, but his overall piece is informative, and thought provoking. It’s a long piece, but well worth your time.  The comments are good too, especially for clarifying some of the BMD details.