Sounding the Alarm: Are We Ready for the Chemical Battlefield in Korea?
The rhetoric re:Korea ratchets up daily on both sides, and carries with it a belligerency unseen since at least the mid- 1990s. There are hundreds of “whither Korea” articles polluting the media and the internet, many of them bearing witness to the utter lack of knowledge about the peninsula possessed by many of those article’s authors.
What is the real likelihood of war with North Korea? A war that would likely include a nuclear exchange of some sort (even if it was “limited”)? Who knows. Both the DRPK and the United States have self-absorbed, mercurial leaders who lack significant “depth” when it comes to the dangers of international diplomacy and the consequences of all-out warfare in South Korea. Could it happen? Yep. Will it? Who knows.
Besides, that is not the sort of question we as CBRN professionals really need to concern ourselves with, other than over a beer on the back forty. No, we must confront two very important facts that have genuine (and devastating) consequences should the rhetoric in Korea turn into warfare:
- Despite 60+ years of planning and preparation, we have limited knowledge of the DPRK CRBN arsenal. Those knowledgeable of such things often note that we lack significant depth in our intelligence too.
- After two decades of COIN, our forces are woefully unprepared to fight in a high intensity conflict, and more unprepared to fight on a chemical battlefield than at any point since 1917.
It does little good to examine the whys behind these facts. Our knowledge gaps (public and secret) are real, and unlikely to go away, owing to the nature of the DPRK regime. The United States Army is making significant steps to return to “basics” in how it trains and fights. We are finally starting to consider what we will be training and fighting with in the future. After two decades, the US military is growing again too, but still not enough to meet the Army’s true commitments. Even with a newly receptive Congress, sequester has taken a toll we will feel for decades.
Further, outside of Europe and 2nd Infantry Division, US Forces Korea (USFK), the changes in focus to near-peer competitors and higher intensity conflicts are little felt in a force still focused on rotations in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq. For all the talk about new “hybrid warfare” -- not a new thing no matter what they tell you - the wargames Russia is playing in Belarus are the same they played in 1988. We are rotating troops to Europe again. NATO has new found relevancy, excepting Germany, who is sitting this one out, and Turkey who is heading out of the alliance.
These things are above most CBRN professional’s paygrade, though we can certainly opine on them (and should). What is in our purview and more concerning is the lack of preparedness to fight on a chemical battlefield. Before it was CBRN, it was NBC. “No Body Cares” continues to sum up the attitude of most troops toward the subject.
That is a colossal mistake, one we have made before. In 1917, when the first American forces left for France in World War I, they had no training in chemical warfare and had NO chemical protective equipment. They ended up having to buy French and British masks and chemical weapons. American made masks and chemical munitions eventually went into production, but none reached Europe before the end of the war.
Even with training, the American casualty rate from chemical agents was unacceptably high. American forces fought on the Western Front from January 1918 to November 1918. During that period over 30 percent of their casualties came from chemical weapons. Only high explosive artillery caused more casualties (and then, only marginally so). Chemical weapons were more effective on the battlefield in 1918 than machine guns. Yes, you read that correctly. Go back, read it again. Let it sink in.
Astute students of chemical warfare in 1918 know that chemical weapons had significant tactical utility. The myth they didn’t work is an old and hoary lie. One I’ve written on extensively at CBRNPro.net (here, here, here, and here). Yet, that was a hundred years ago. Contrary to widespread belief, not much has changed. Chemical weapons still have significant tactical utility, and the North Koreans have the largest stockpile of chemical artillery and rockets in the world.
What does that mean if war in Korea were to break out again? Most commentators talk about Seoul and it being in artillery range of the DPRK. Such concerns about the vast civilian population of South Korea are deeply troubling. War in Korea would be more devastating than anything since World War II. Yet, there is an important military concern not often discussed. Chemical weapons against civilian targets may cause terror and more than a few casualties, but their offensive and defensive use against US and ROK forces is more worrisome. Chemical weapons would seriously offset DPRK qualitative disadvantages in military capabilities.
But that is not a new fact, or new situation, nor confined to Korea. In 1990, following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the United States initially deployed the 82nd Airborne and the 18th Airborne Corps to Saudi Arabia, beginning Operation Desert Shield. There they sat for five months, while a vast coalition army assembled around them. Veterans of those five months in the sand can recount more tales of woe about that period than any from the actual invasion of Kuwait.
Why so long, you may ask? The answer most give is that it was how long it took for that Coalition Army to deploy and assemble. That is partly true. A significant part of the forces in Desert Shield deployed from Europe (never to return), and were on the ground within a matter of a of months, so the picture is actually more complex than that. Planning? Nope, the broad outline of the plan for the invasion of Kuwait formed early on, though the details and logistical requirements took longer to piece together.
So, what was the real hold up? Chemical weapons and raw numbers. Leadership in DC and General Schwarzkopf in the region, had real and legitimate concerns about Saddam’s next move. The Iraqi Army at the time was the fourth largest in the world and the bulk of it (including Iraq’s best units) was just across the border in Kuwait. That army consisted of hardened combat veterans, fresh off an eight-year war with Iran. A war that, to that point, included the largest armored battle in history - a four-day slog in January 1981. The Iran-Iraq war also saw some of the first widespread use of chemical munitions on the battlefield since 1918.
Opposing the Iraqis were the light-infantry men of the 82nd Airborne and their 51 M551A1 Sheridan Tanks. If Saddam wanted the Arabian oilfields in 1990, they were his for the taking. Fortunately, he did not. Within a couple of months, the Coalition worried less about the real threat of an Iraqi move south, and began to worry more about a Coalition move north. Iraq had a vast chemical weapons arsenal, built with help from Egypt, Syria, and a few European companies and chemical experts (primarily from Germany, Italy, and France). Iraq used blister and nerve agents against the Iranians, and some form of asphyxiant against the Kurds. The threat posed by these chemical weapons was a major part of Desert Storm planning.
The concern at the time was that if Saddam’s forces used chemical weapons against the Coalition, the war would quickly turn into a slow trudge north against prepared defenses and the casualty rates among US and allied forces would be unacceptably high. These worries were legitimate and real, despite over a decade of training for CBRN warfare in Europe. NBC became priority number one in 1990 as hundreds of thousands of troops became really good, really fast, at putting on their MOPP gear.
The fact they’d considered NBC training an annoyance for the previous decade was still a real concern for their leaders. Even with their defensive gear, decontamination resources are problematic in the desert. Planning for decontamination in Europe used widely available natural water sources. The Arabian Peninsula was another ball of wax. Further, outside of Iraq-Iran, and the Chinese theater of World War II, chemical weapons were largely absent from the battlefield after 1918. Since then, agent effectiveness, delivery methods, and dissemination technology, all improved. No one could be sure what a modern chemical battlefield would look like, but planners and Schwarzkopf knew - it would be bad.
Projections on the effects of chemical weapons on coalition forces showed high casualty rates and an unsustainable supply problem. Contaminated forces would not be able to readily decontaminate and continue the high-operations tempo that Desert Storm needed for its effect, if they had to stop and decontaminate. If Saddam went chemical, that big flanking maneuver was more likely to look like the positional trench warfare that characterized much of the Iran-Iraq War. When President Trump described that war as “fight, fight, fight, then rest, then fight some more” he was unusually accurate in his portrayal.
Faced with these real concerns, President George H.W. Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Israel's Yitzhak Shamir all hit on the same solution to the problem of Iraqi chemical capabilities (though it is unknown how coordinated they were in doing so). The United States, via Secretary of State James Baker, communicated a threat to Tariq Aziz of Iraq that the United States would consider chemical weapons use equivalent to nuclear weapons, and the US would respond with nuclear weapons to Iraq’s use of any chemical or biological weapons. The United Kingdom communicated (publicly and privately) similar threats. Israel let it be known that should any of the SCUDs flying its way contain chemical or biological weapons, then the F-16s it kept on standby with nuclear weapons it "may or may not possess," might again find their way to Iraq - the same way Israeli planes did in 1981 when they blew up the French reactor at Taji (then frequently referred to as Osirik - the name of the reactor they bombed).
Of course, as Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm, no one knew if the threats would work. Fortunately, there is evidence gathered in 2003-2004 that they did. Unfortunately, James Baker let the cat out of the bag after the war that it was all a bluff (seriously diminishing the deterrence of future threats). In 2010, President Obama limited the nuclear posture of the United States against chemical weapons, with some caveats. While the details left open the possibility of threats like 1990-1991, the subsequent “redline” failure in Syria, combined with the more ambiguous media reporting about the change in nuclear posture, significantly diminished the deterrence value of future nuclear threats. No one would believe them.
Yet, the most unfortunate consequence of Desert Shield/Storm's success, and the lack of chemical weapons usage during the war, was that everyone seems to have forgotten about the threat BEFORE the liberation of Kuwait. A real threat that does not happen, does not mean that the threat was not real, and might not have changed the outcome of the war. We cannot know for sure what the outcome would have been, had Saddam used chemical weapons widely in 1990-1991, but we can be sure it would have been very different.
Why? Because chemical weapons have tactical utility. Yup, said it again, in case you missed it before, or elsewhere on CBRNPro.net. Write it on your arm. Chant it as a personal mantra. You will never hear it uttered at Fort Leonard Wood (unfortunately), but it is the most important thing CBRN professionals can learn about chemical weapons. They are not “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” in most cases, but their tactical use in artillery is a 100-year-old tactic that showed significant success when used properly, like it was in 1918. That fact was part of military doctrine for the entire period the US and the Soviet Union had offensive chemical weapons capabilities.
What utility, you ask? Persistent and semi-persistent agents delivered by artillery in concentration can seal the flanks of an attacking force and disrupt assembly areas to the enemy rear, while non-persistent agents can encumber and reduce defending forces receiving the attack. The persistent agents reduce the ability of defending forces to carry out counter attacks on the flanks of a penetration. Both persistent and non-persistent agents in depth can reduce the ability of defending forces to assemble and conduct an effective defense in depth.
Further, chemical agents are especially effective against artillery. You do not have to hit a gun to knock it out of action with CW. Getting close with a sufficient concentration of percutaneous agent will do the trick, with the knock-on benefit that some agents will corrode the metal of the guns. Counter-battery fire with chemical agent proved valuable in 1915 at Verdun and its use expanded, to profound effect, in 1918. Another knock-on effect, not of significant use in 1918, but certainly a consideration in Cold War doctrine, is that chemical agents can have serious detrimental effects on internal combustion engines, too.
The addition of rockets and the development of third generation nerve agents, both persistent and semi-persistent, did not change the underlying employment method or the tactical utility of chemical weapons, they just increased the ways you could deliver it and the effectiveness of the agents delivered.
Likewise, chemical agents can significantly hamper attacking forces and turn offensives into bloody slogs. That was what happened AFTER the spring offensives in 1918. The Germans, on their heels after their successive offensives ground to a halt, plastered their front with chemical agent, especially mustard, channeling and slowing attacking forces. One of the biggest (and arguably most significant) offensives by the Allies during this period was the French-American Meuse-Argonne Offensive that struck at the heart of the German defense.
That offensive was an ugly, bloody slog, and the United States suffered massive numbers of chemical casualties. During and since, American actions in the offensive came in for much criticism (not all of it fair), but as more recent scholars note, the AEF offensive still worked, to a point. Not only did the Germans throw more manpower into defending the Meuse-Argonne than they did elsewhere against the French and British, they exhausted their chemical stockpiles doing so.
The dirty secret of the final “100 days” of World War I, was that the German Army did not “disintegrate” but its defense became less effective, leading to massive Allied advances. The reason - the Germans started running out of chemical weapons. Allied advances in 1918 are inversely proportional to the amount of chemical agents the Germans were able to lay down in front of them. The allies were also starting to copy the German tactics as their own chemical stockpiles increased.
So, you may ask after reading all about Desert Shield/Storm and World War I, what the hell does that have to do with Korea? The answer - EVERYTHING.
The same concerns General Schwarzkopf had in 1990-1991, the same tactics used by the Germans in 1918, the same damn weapons in both cases (chemical artillery rounds), are an even greater threat in Korea, which may also have biological weapons and has a small arsenal of strategic and possibly tactical, nuclear weapons. The scenario NATO played out in in Able Danger 1983 is our Korean scenario today, albeit on a more limited and smaller scale, and with less likelihood of total world destruction.
That smaller scale concentrates the problem, however. While USFK and the ROK army are qualitatively superior to anything the DPRK can field, the DPRK has significant quantitative advantages, a willingness to spend lives, and a huge arsenal of chemical weapons. Used properly, those chemical weapons and the sheer size of DPRK forces would make war in Korea a massive, bloody, chemical soaked slog.
It is also likely that the North Koreans could penetrate deeply into South Korea, much as they did in 1950, before airpower shifted the tide and enough forces arrived in theater to push them back. Chemical weapons in Korea would play the same role they did in 1918, first on the offensive, punching holes in the DMZ and disrupting counter-attacks along their flanks, and then, when on the defensive, slowing and encumbering attacking US and ROK forces as the advantage shifted.
So, the question for CBRN Professionals in Korea, Japan, Australia, the United States, and China for that matter, is simple - how ready are we to fight defensively and offensively on a chemical battlefield?
The answer is also simple. We are not. The focus is still on the wars we fight, not the one we might, but an entire generation of American solders have grown accustomed to leaving their protective masks behind, just as they did in World War II. The US is not alone either, most nations of the world are ill-equipped and poorly trained for such conflicts.
What is the solution? That too, is simple. Train as you fight. We must train CBRN as an integral part of how we fight in a high intensity conflict. The threat is real, it is an old threat, and one we know how to mitigate. We need to relearn that capability, quickly. That starts with the lowest junior NCO and reaches up to the highest echelons of command.
Building in CBRN considerations at all levels of planning and preparation for how we fight, no matter where we might fight, must be part of the picture. It cannot be an afterthought, or a once a year, check the block, four-hour training event. Decon units have greater purpose than just being a nice carwash after a field problem concludes. Units need to stop ignoring those deadlined CBRN defensive systems and delaying maintenance. CBRN soldiers and units need to step up their game. The time is short, and the threat is very real.
We must be ready to fight, decontaminate, recover, and fight again - offensively and defensively, in a high op-tempo battlefield where chemical agents are widespread. Every unit, everywhere, must be able to perform this task. Most of the professional army and US reserve forces will be committed to any Korean conflict sooner, rather than later. South Korean forces will face difficulty mobilizing in the face of a DPRK attack. If the past is any indicator, casualties will be much higher than any we have seen since the last Korean conflict.
Should the conflict bog down like it did in 1951, events are likely to trigger additional mobilizations like the recall of the IRR and in a longer conflict - the draft. Casualty rates and the small size of present land components would require extensive measures to fill the gaps created in a high-intensity, chemical battlefield. Further, the ability of ROK units to fill with their extensive reserve forces would be seriously complicated due to the threat to Seoul and other major population centers likely to come under long range attack and sabotage from DPRK Special Forces (which may also disrupt US deployments from Hawaii, Japan, and the US). As additional forces are mobilized both their training and quality will be less than those lost (another lesson of World War I). The professional military will buy time for them to deploy, but at an irreplaceable cost.
Despite technical and operational advantages in USFK and ROK forces over the DPRK, chemical weapons would be a “great leveler.” Combined with the numerical advantages of the North, a fanatical tendency, and a willingness to freely spend lives, USFK must view the current situation in Korea the same way Norman Schwarzkopf did in the early fall of 1990, and, for that matter, the way Foch and Pershing saw things in the spring of 1918.
To put it bluntly, our situation is desperate. We have time to prepare, but we could be at war at any time. We are, while not totally unprepared, only marginally more capable, and just as untested. We bought the lessons of a chemical battlefield in blood during the Meuse-Argonne. As it stands today, we would buy them again in Korea, where the agents used would be more lethal.
The facts are simple. We have not fought on a chemical battlefield since 1918. Lessons learned then are as dead as the men who learned them. Our current doctrine and operational focus focuses on other threats and priorities. We have a limited CBRN defense capability and forces unready to fight in a chemical battlefield. What we do have is untested, unproven, and not well integrated into our planning, training, or operational day-to-day as a military.
In the early 1980s, following the disbandment of the US Chemical Warfare Service in the 1970s, the realization that serious chemical threats existed in Europe led the US Army to resurrect its chemical capabilities in the US Chemical Corps at Anniston. For the next decade, NATO prepared itself to fight and win in a chemical conflict. That preparedness showed in 1990-1991, despite the “No Body Cares” attitude of many soldiers prior. We are not as bad off as the 1970s, but we are not as ready as we were in 1990-1991 either.
By the end of the Cold War, and to a lesser degree up until 2003, the Army trained regularly to fight on a chemical battlefield and at a high operations tempo in high intensity conflict. The degree of that training varied, but it was part of the way the Army did business. Two decades of counter-insurgency and “false alarms” in 1990-1991 and 2003 led to complacency. An entire generation of soldiers focused on the war at hand (rightly) and so received very little training and experience in CBRN operations or high intensity combat. That is changing, slowly. Too slowly.
It is not all bad news, since 2003 our detection and identification technology advanced significantly, new units like the 20th Support Command came into existence, and the Chemical School finally started to adapt itself to real threats and offer more advanced hazardous materials training for its soldiers. These are great accomplishments. But they are not enough. These accomplishments produce better CBRN professionals in the US military. CBRN soldiers may be better, but the rest of the force is worse! The non-CBRN part of the Army and Marine Corps has far to go, and time is short.
We must act now, or we will reap the whirlwind later. The future is up to us, as CBRN professionals. We must sound the alarm and get down to the serious business of training and preparation. We need to know our own history, study it, dissect it, debate it. We need to relearn what we knew in 1918-1919 and in 1990-91. To do that, we must prove our relevance again, against high levels of skepticism and a reluctance to face up to the real threat.
We must do it. It will be challenging work. Just as it was for most of chemical warfare’s history, it will also be a thankless and unappreciated job. But it is a vital one. If fortune smiles upon us, we will never need to put it all into practice, but if things go badly, failure to prepare will cost us as dearly as it did our ancestors, 100 years ago in mud of France. Even if deterrence can find a way to work again, like it did in 1991, we cannot be sure. So, we must be ready. Starting today.
Let’s make it happen!