It took 56 days for the U.S. to fly two divisions’ worth of soldiers into the failed nuclear-armed state of “North Brownland” and as many as 90,000 troops to deal with the country’s nuclear stockpiles, a major U.S. Army war game concluded this winter.
The Unified Quest war game conducted this year by Army planners posited the collapse of a nuclear-armed, xenophobic, criminal family regime that had lorded over a closed society and inconveniently lost control over its nukes as it fell. Army leaders stayed mum about the model for the game, but all indications — and maps seen during the game at the Army War College — point to North Korea.
While American forces who staged in a neighboring friendly country to the south eventually made it over the border into North Brownland, they encountered several problems for which they struggled to find solutions. One of the first was that a large number of nuclear sites were in populated areas, so they had to try to perform humanitarian assistance operations while conducting combined arms maneuver and operations.
One way of doing this was to “use humanitarian assistance as a form of maneuver,” Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, director of the Army’s Concept Development and Learning Directorate, told reporters. The Army dropped humanitarian supplies a short distance from populated areas, drawing the population away from the objective sites, he explained.
Many of the problems encountered were hashed out with Army leaders at a Senior Leader Seminar on March 19 at Fort McNair in Washington. The event—which included the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, and the vice chief, Gen. John Campbell, along with a collection of three- and four-star generals — was off the record, but under terms of the agreement that allowed a handful of reporters to cover the event, unattributed quotes can be reported.
One of the major complications was that “technical ISR was not capable of closing the gap” caused by not having human intelligence assets in the country for years before the fight, one participant said. Also, “our ability to get north was hindered by our operational inflexibility,” particularly when it comes to dropping troops into austere, contested areas.
To move soldiers quickly, Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys quickly inserted Army units deep behind enemy lines, but leaders found that inserting troops far in front of the main force so quickly often caused them to be surrounded, after which they had to be withdrawn.
Overall, the friendly force ultimately “failed to achieve the operational agility” it needed to succeed, another participant complained, “largely due to the rigidity” of current deployment models. What’s more, the joint force was “able to get the force there quickly, but it was the technical force” that proved more difficult to deploy.
Another participant agreed, adding “the key challenge was timely access to joint enablers” such as ISR and counter-weapons of mass destruction units, which were desperately needed by the general-purpose ground units.
While not all lessons learned from the exercise were fully hashed out in this unclassified setting, some officers involved expressed their views of how the past decade of war has influenced how the Army prepares to fight.
“We’ve had the luxury in the last several wars of a place called Kuwait” from which to launch troops and stage equipment, one officer said. “I think our skills have atrophied in the call you get in the middle of the night,” and in forcible-entry operations from the air and sea. Skills haven’t been kept fresh in doing things such as loading trains full of equipment, and in setting up new command posts, he said.
Another leader agreed. “We have been spoiled by a command-and-control network that has been established for a decade” in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, adding that the Army has to get back to training to operate in an austere environment.
One lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforced by the Unified Quest game, was that “we’re not going to fight a pure military war again,” one four-star general opined. Instead, being successful in conflict will require a variety of solutions requiring cultural knowledge, political acumen and other intelligence activities. The problem is, according to another officer, that the service needs to better understand the cultures in which it will fight, since “we tend to focus on the clash, when we need to focus on the will” of the local population.
Gen. Robert Cone, director of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said the difficulties the Army faces in moving troops and materiel around the battlefield again reinforced that “we have significant inter-service dependencies on our ability to move” and that any future fight will be a joint fight.
When asked about the potential for conflict in North Korea specifically, Cone said that while he thinks the forces the U.S. has today in South Korea “are adequate … the question is what forces are adequate for the problem of loose nukes?”