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Chemical Warfare Could Challenge U.S. Success in a Possible War With North Korea
WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. military officials and independent experts are concerned North Korea would use chemical or biological weapons tactically to devastate U.S. and South Korean forces in the event of war, potentially producing a dilemma of U.S. retreat or nuclear retaliation.
The concern is that North Korea would aggressively use such banned weapons in a war while keeping its nuclear weapons in reserve to deter a U.S. nuclear response. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Washington has maintained an ambiguous policy of hinting that the United States might retaliate to a chemical or biological weapons attack by using nuclear weapons.
The use of chemical weapons early in a conflict could be particularly devastating to U.S. forces, by causing significant troop and civilian casualties, reducing battle effectiveness, and closing down operations at major ports and bases, experts and officials say.
The U.S. military has sought to bolster its chemical and biological weapons defense capabilities but officials admit that technical and procedural improvements are still needed (see GSN, Dec. 9).
War with North Korea under such circumstances could be “more like World War I or World War II” than any of the recent conflicts the United States has been engaged in, according to Brig. Gen. David Clary, director of the U.S. Air Force Homeland Security Directorate.
“If the next conflict were to take place on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S.-ROK casualty rate likely would be very high, and the degree of difficulty in confronting a formidable asymmetric adversary like North Korea would be daunting, even for the world’s only superpower,” wrote Air Force Counterproliferation Center Director Barry Schneider in a Center-published article last month.
U.S. military officials tend not to publicly highlight U.S. weaknesses regarding potential foes, but in the past year, as U.S.-North Korean tensions have heightened over the Pyongyang’s nuclear activities, there have been rare and candid acknowledgements.
Referring to the perceived chemical threat, Navy Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress in June that he believed the likelihood of war is low, but added, “the stakes would be very high if war occurred, and even higher if North Korea continues to pursue a nuclear capability.”
The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, he said, “borders the most heavily-armed strip of territory on Earth. And as a result, many South Koreans live within range of North Korea’s artillery, some of which we know to be armed with chemical warheads.”
Fargo was even more candid about the concern in little noticed prepared testimony in March, saying that WMD use could become “a potential show-stopper for the U.S. military operations, causing significant operational risk” to U.S. war plans.
“CBRNE [Chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives] is a critical operating condition and potentially the greatest threat I face,” he said.
“That’s about the strongest statement I’ve seen from a combatant commander to date. His war plans could fail against these threats,” said Bruce Bennett, research leader for strategy, force planning and counterproliferation at RAND.
Schneider wrote last month that North Korea might use chemical and biological attacks to weaken U.S. and South Korean border defenses. Furthermore, with its suspected nuclear weapons reserved to deter a U.S. nuclear response, Pyongyang could also use longer-range weapons to contaminate South Korean and Japanese ports and airfields, he wrote.
Fargo warned in March that the closure of a few strategic choke points in South Korea, Guam and Japan “could stop U.S. forces flows and other critical support operations.”
Potentially Catastrophic Dilemma
According to a recent U.S. intelligence community report, North Korea possesses a stockpile of an unknown size of nerve, blister, choking and blood agents, and a variety of means for delivery.
An aggressive chemical weapons campaign could present the U.S. president with several bad options, said Brad Roberts, a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which provides analytical studies for the U.S. defense secretary and the joint military staff. The president could be faced with choosing between fighting a high-casualty war, throwing in the towel or resorting to nuclear force to try to end the war quickly, Roberts said.
“We’re left with the unhappy choice between not safeguarding some interest and backing down, and engaging in nuclear retaliation which would be unhappy from all sorts of perspectives,” he said.
The United States eliminated the option of responding in kind to chemical or biological weapons when President Richard Nixon signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 and President Bill Clinton signed the chemical weapons ban in 1993.
As part of its counterproliferation strategy, the U.S. Defense Department during the Bush administration has been pursuing a range of conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities for better targeting and neutralizing deeply buried facilities and chemical and biological weapons. Bush recently received congressional support for researching such weapons, including low-yield nuclear weapons that officials argue are more credible for deterrence because they would cause less collateral destruction than higher-yield weapons.
Beginning with the Gulf War and continuing up to the most recent Iraq war, U.S. officials have on occasion publicly implied they might respond to a chemical or biological attack on U.S. forces with nuclear weapons, as well as possibly overwhelming conventional force.
But aside from perhaps triggering a North Korean nuclear response by ordering a U.S. nuclear attack, a U.S. president could also face international condemnation of such an action and the potential that the U.S. action would ignite a new era of nuclear proliferation, according to an article by Harry Conley, also published by the Air Force Counterproliferation Center last month.
Some deterrence strategists, he wrote, argue that “the goal of nuclear nonproliferation will be irreparably damaged if America continues to maintain a policy that allows nuclear first use. The United States should renounce nuclear retaliation [to chemical or biological attacks], they argue, and instead threaten a massive conventional response.”
Others, he wrote, have argued a nuclear response might be internationally palatable if the damage is proportional to that caused by the initial chemical or biological weapons.
Air Force Lt. Col. Carl Baker, a professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, said he agrees with assessments by senior military officials of U.S. vulnerability to North Korean chemical weapons. He said, though, that such a scenario would be unlikely because it would lead to massive casualties.
“The only way that that vulnerability exists is in some sort of apocalyptic scenario. … I understand that’s their job [to make and act on such assessments], but in the end I think it’s difficult for me to envision that sort of scenario coming out in play,” he said.
North Korea appears to understand well U.S. concerns over its potential WMD use and has been emboldened in its negotiating strategy with the United States, said RAND’s Bennett.
“They’ve used it already strategically. … Think of the South Korean reaction over the past few months relative the North Korean threats … and their willingness to be aggressive on many negotiation issues,” he said.
Better Counterproliferation Capabilities Said Needed
There appears to be a consensus among officials and experts that a prospective U.S. solution to the situation is better chemical and biological defenses for U.S. and South Korean forces, in addition to other counterproliferation tools for neutralizing North Korean capabilities such as better intelligence and theater missile defenses.
“If CBW defense equipment can mitigate the effects of a CBW attack, the adversary may see no advantage in using weapons of mass destruction,” Conley wrote.
Concern that the unmatched U.S. conventional military might be “equalized” by the “asymmetric” weapons of mass destruction of a lesser power, Roberts said, was behind the seminal 1993 speech by then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin that initiated the military’s effort to bolster chemical and biological defenses and other counterproliferation capabilities.
After 10 years of specific attention to the issue, however, U.S. capabilities remain distant, experts say.
“Significant differences exist between what we would like to achieve against CBRNE threats and our actual capabilities,” Admiral Fargo testified in March.
He cited shortages of troop protective equipment and early detection capabilities, “inadequate decontamination standards, and significant shortcomings in detailed and actionable intelligence on adversary WMD processes and facilities.”
The Air Force recently has begun implementing a new “concepts of operations” plan for dealing with chemical attacks, and is working on updating its biological, radiological and nuclear plans as well. The chemical defense changes resulted in part from Gen. Clary’s direction.
Changes such as storing aircraft in bunkers, dispersing base activities, and making post-attack assessments to identify uncontaminated areas, have been made that might now allow U.S. planes to operate after WMD attacks.
It might allow for a restoration of operations “within hours, as opposed to never,” Clary said.
Another prospective change is the introduction of new technologies under evaluation at the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Among 11 technologies currently approaching deployment is a special body bag for transporting fatally contaminated soldiers.
Lt. Col. Baker said attaining full protection against a chemical campaign is ultimately unnecessary and unrealistic.
“Do you put a plastic bubble over Osan Air Base? … When you start trying to deal with defending yourselves against things like nuclear and biological and chemical weapons, you end up chasing your tail.”
Pessimism about U.S. prospects against a WMD-using North Korea is by no means universal.
Maj. Gen. Robert Smolen, director of nuclear and counterproliferation for the Air Force chief of staff, said at a conference last week that “scientific and technical advances that we’ve made have enabled us to develop operational procedures we now put into the capability enhancements that are making us far more able to survive, and beyond the survival, taking the operations back out and producing operational capability that we thought we had lost before.”
Also speaking, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Keys, responsible to the secretary of the Air Force and chief of staff for nuclear and counterproliferation policy, said the United States would prevail despite chemical and biological defense shortcomings.
The Air Force is “prepared to fight and win” against a WMD-armed adversary, he said in a slide presentation.
Such optimism is under challenge, though.
“How does he know that? I haven’t seen any metric that shows the difference between slogging away and winning,” Roberts later told the conference.
“We need to have the ability of the [armed] services to sustain operations under attack and the combatant commands’ war plans have to have sufficient flexibility to protect our hosts, protect ourselves and to get the job done,” he said.
“And in my view those capabilities haven’t come together yet,” he said.
June 14, 2013
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