North Korea Invades! (And Other Pentagon War Games)

North Korea Invades! (And Other Pentagon War Games)

North Korean forces are invading South Korea. Drug gangs along the U.S.-Mexican border are seizing parts of El Paso, Texas. A nuclear device is floating in waters somewhere near the U.S. And, NATO forces are deploying along the border of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to quell ethnic violence. American military minds confronted these crises in detail. But don’t worry. It’s not yet the end of the world. All were of fictional future scenarios from a U.S. Army wargame at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They are designed to help U.S. forces anticipate and prepare for tomorrow’s military problems.

These fictional conflicts, designed to be taking place from 2018 to 2025, are based on predictions of what global circumstances might be like at that time. “We actually take a look at the current operational environment then make grounded projections into the future,” says U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Doyle. The game scenarios presume that by 2018, there will be overcrowding in the U.S., strained global water and energy supplies worldwide, and an increased willingness among U.S. allies to conduct peacekeeping missions — perhaps because they have no other choice. “We actually have more than one threat that we are dealing with. The United States has come to the point where it is not the lone superpower in the world and it is actually first among others,” says Jay Nelson, the lead war game designer for one of the regional crisis panels. An additional complication, he adds, is that “The near peers [like China and Russia] that we have trying to discredit the legitimacy of the United States.”

A main thrust of the wargame effort is to build on a “whole government” approach which looks for solutions to crises by calling upon a host of government agencies including the U.S. State Department, Special Operations forces , the intelligence community and key U.S. allies around the world. In fact, military officers from a host of countries Australia, Germany, and the U.K. attended the wargames as well.

Wargamers envision future scenarios emerging out of many situations: the continuing fall-out from the break-up of the Soviet Union, ethnic conflicts that cross borders, a combination of both. “What are the possible conflict issues” asks Maj. Tom Whitlock, Special Operations Command coordinator for one of the wargames. “You can look at Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia and you can see that lines are drawn completely arbitrary of ethnic lines.” The Kurds, for example, live in four different countries while even a large, apparently homogeneous country like Iran has a large Arab minority.

And then there’s North Korea. The scenario facing the Pacific Command posits that Kim Jong Il dies in 2016 and is replaced by a new leader who resumes the processing of uranium for the countries’ long-disputed nuclear weapons program. Once two North Korean uranium enrichment plants are discovered, the United Nations passes a security council resolution to oppose the action. In response, North Korean forces cross the DMZ and launch an invasion of the south by disguising thousands of troops within groups of refugees, creating what is called “an irrgular warfare-type scenario that may require a mixture of conventional and counterinsurgency tactics.”

The wargamers are made up former generals, U.S. State Department officials, air force officers, members of the intelligence community, including regional and subject matter experts trained to help provide a commander with the information needed to craft a “campaign design” or approach to a crisis. They were divided into teams of Red and Blue , each with a team leader, to build their actions in the crisis.

The Blue and Red teams sit along opposite sides of a rectangular adjoining table, with commanders in the middle beneath a large graphic display with power point slides and digital maps showing each scenario. After meeting to devise their plans, Red team members take hostile actions against the Blue team which must then fashion a response. “Our goal is to stress the blue team,” says retired Maj. Gen. Chuck Thomas, a red team senior mentor. In some instances, diplomatic and humanitarian actions short of military force can be chosen as the best option. In others, force may be required. The idea is to draw from all military services and branches of government along with key allied nations to defuse conflicts while causing the least amount of damage. “Each problem we engage in is unique in its own right. Which is beyond what the military would normally look at,” says Maj. Whitlock.

In the case of the North Korea scenario, the Blue forces decided to launch measured air strikes as an initial move. “The military is one of the options we have to use. The problem here is complex. You don’t really have your full-frontal attack with the North Korean Army coming,” says U.S. Army Col. Chris Chae, blue team lead for the North Korea panel.

Meanwhile in another wargame panel, NATO forces assembled to quell fighting along the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border. In the scenario, violence erupts in the region due to border disputes and ethnic tension between the two states. “We are introducing a NATO response force to help quell the instability and return the situation to an internationally acceptable component,” says U.S. Army Col. Matt Dawson, blue team commander and a strategic planner at Fort McPherson, Georgia. “There are some Uzbek nationals of Turkmen descent and Turkmen nationals of Uzbek descent and there have been atrocities that are exacerbating the situation.”

“The heavy emphasis on design requires the military planners to have a deep understanding of the history and geography of the region and come up with a concept taking into account all of these complexities. This I think is relatively new and promising,” says Edward Hull, a retired U.S. State Department ambassador.

And how do the conflicts end At the end of a week of gaming, the results were mixed. In the Central Asian conflict, says Army Spokesman Harvey Perritt, the NATO rapid reaction force coupled with humanitarian assistance was able to decrease the violence along the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Korean problem, however, remained largely unresolved. “With the Korean Peninsula,” says Perritt, “the problem is bigger than just military.” The conclusions drawn from the exercise, he said, were more “informational and cultural.” The response to a North Korean attack, he says, would have to require diplomatic, humanitarian and other solutions, including the involvment of many other allies. That does not bode well for the world beyond the games, where Pyongyang remains a frightening question mark.