U.S. Experts Weigh North Korean Capabilities

By David A. Fulghum

OSAN AIR BASE, SOUTH KOREA – Gathering intelligence about North Korea is tough, U.S. military experts say, given the fact that scarce human intelligence sources, rugged terrain, underground facilities and a lack of permissive overflight all conspire against scrutiny.

But the United States and South Korea work hard at it, representatives say, because they may not have much more to go on.

“This is the last bastion of conventional force-on-force [threats] that we hope we don’t have to deal with — but that we prepare for on a daily basis,” says U.S. Air Force Col. Gordon Issler, a 7th AF intelligence official. “It’s a tough target. Warning time is a challenge, so indications and warnings is our primary mission.”

North Korea’s military is considered too unbalanced between tooth and tail to encircle Seoul, much less repeat the initially successful offensive of 1950 that ended with U.S. and South Korean forces backed into a perimeter around Pusan. A major technological and political element of an engagement would be South Korean and U.S. forces’ effort to stop an artillery and missile bombardment of Seoul.

Some of the North’s technological focus appears to be on asymmetric capabilities such as special operations forces, tactical missiles like Scud variants, and weapons of mass destruction such as chemical warheads.

“They are modernizing some of [those] capabilities,” says Col. Robert Nuovo, 7th Air Force chief of intelligence. “The tracking and guidance of the Taepodong 2s is becoming much more accurate and range is increasing. Their ability to use computers for command and control is improving and they’re trying to network their air defenses. But because they are resource-constrained and they lack combat experience, they need limited objectives. As a result, the ability to damage Seoul is a bargaining chip.”

Allied operators offered Aviation Week some insight to their air-defense situation. In the event of a large-scale attack from the North, South Korean and U.S. forces would fly as many as 3,000 sorties per day against a “very capable air defense,” says Brig. Gen. Mike Keltz, vice commander of the 7th Air Force. “That creates a lot of targets for North Korea’s weaponry,” he observed.

“Even though they have older weapons systems — SA-2s, SA-3s and [long-range] SA-5s — they’ve integrated them very well with computerized, fiber-optic systems. They don’t radiate on predictable frequencies anymore.”

The need for such intense air attacks are as much a political requirement as an operational need. “Conservative estimates are that the North Koreans could fire up to 250,000 rounds [of heavy artillery] for the first 24 to 48 hours of the fight,” Keltz says. “That makes it imperative to strike the long-range artillery tunnel system to decrease the volume of fire. An [associated requirement] is to systematically pinpoint those targets that we have to hit kinetically.”

But senior allied commanders don’t think a major military attack is likely because Kim Jong Il’s regime cannot afford to lose — and it would lose — a stand-up, conventional fight against the U.S. and South Korea.

“They want to irritate us,” Issler says. “But they want to shut down any military adventure and start negotiations before it turns into a real war.”

Still, he notes, while it appears to be a cycle of brinksmanship, no one can be absolutely sure. “We’re all outsiders and we’re all trying to figure out if the government is as impulsive as it seems or if there is a deeper game.”

Photo: Boeing

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