With all the hype in regards to North Korea, it’s only necessary to have a discussion about how our special operations forces (SOF) would perform in the region if things actually did go south.
While my background is specifically within the Army Special Operations Command, I can shed some light as to how our SOF units would perform in the N. Korean environment, and touch on how other special operations forces within the Navy and Marines may perform, as I have worked with them extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Special Operations Command and Tier Status
Special Operations Forces play a significant role in U.S. military operations, and the Administration has given US SOF greater responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. Special Operations Forces are elite military units with special training and equipment who can infiltrate into hostile territory through land, sea, and air to conduct a variety of operations, many of them being classified.
SOF personnel undergo rigorous selection and lengthy special training. Typically, the general public categorizes SOF forces by their tier: the higher the tier, the better the unit. In actuality, this is not a designation of which unit is the best. Instead, the tier status designates units by their mission capabilities. Tier 1 units typically take on the nation’s high priority missions, while Tier 2 and Tier 3 units perform a larger scale of specialized classified operations.
All Tier 1 and Tier 2 units maintain three separate operational groups within their respective units; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Ranger Battalion is an example. These groups are essentially identical and deploy within their respective JSOC package. The rotational cycle is generally three months. This allows one group to be deployed overseas, another to be on an 18-hour worldwide emergency deployment notice, and the last group to be training, attending military schools, or on “block leave.” Tier 1 and Tier 2 units take leave together within their respective JSOC package. This term is called “block leave.” Given the wartime tasking of JSOC, an additional deployment package is currently being created. This will allow less operational strain on these units.
Army Special Operations Forces consist of approximately 28,000 soldiers organized into the Special Forces (Green Berets and 1st SFOD), Rangers (75th Ranger Regiment), and Aviation (Night Stalkers). Within these organizations, each unit is broken down into a particular Tier status as well. Special Forces have a Tier status of 3, while the 1st SFOD/Delta Force has a Tier status of 1. The Rangers within the 75th Ranger Regiment have a Tier status of 2, along with the 160th Night Stalkers.
The Green Berets operate with little oversight, working with native peoples in predetermined Areas of Operation (AOs) and serving as unofficial “warrior-diplomats.” They are also capable of conducting direct action raids and overtaking key infrastructure.
The 75th Ranger Regiment is a lethal, agile and flexible force, capable of conducting many complex, joint special operations missions. Today’s Ranger Regiment is the Army’s premier direct-action raid force. Their capabilities include conducting airborne and air assault operations; seizing key terrain, such as airfields; recon; counterterrorism; destroying strategic facilities; and capturing or killing enemies of the nation. Rangers are capable of conducting squad through regimental size operations.
Our Aviation (Night Stalkers) are capable of flying an array of fixed wing aircraft to transport special operations units. Their missions also include attack, assault, and reconnaissance, and are usually conducted at night, at high speeds, low altitudes, and on short notice.
The Army’s Tier 1 unit, 1st SFOD/Delta Force, specializes in recon, counterterrorism (pre-emptive and after something happens), counter proliferation, and recovery and elimination of high value targets.
The United States Navy has a specialized group that I’m sure we are all familiar with, the US Navy SEALs. SEALs have a tier status of 3, with the exception of SEAL Team 6, who have a Tier status of 1. Navy SEALs specialize in direct action, recon, counterterrorism, and foreign internal defense. The mission of the unit that we have become very familiar with, SEAL Team 6, is still considered “classified,” although we know that they do specialize in counterterrorism (pre-emptive and after something happens), counter proliferation, and recovery and elimination of high value targets.
Our Marine Corps has the MARSOC, which is a special operations unit not to be confused with the Marine Force Recon units, which are special operations capable. The MARSOC obtains a Tier 2 and Tier 1 status. MARSOC trains, organizes, equips and, when directed by the Commander, USSOCOM, deploys task-organized, scalable and responsive U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Forces in support of Combatant Commanders and other agencies.
The United States Air Force Special Operations unit, better known in the Air Force as Special Tactics, are broken up into two specific specialties. Combat Control (CCT) and Para rescue (PJ). CCT’s are combat ready FAA certified air traffic controllers, and PJ’s are combat ready rescue and recovery specialists certified as EMT’s to the paramedic level. Members of these two career fields are trained in parachuting, scuba diving, repelling, skiing, motorcycling, and survival skills, along with other specialties.
North Korea’s Geography
Over 80 percent of North Korea is composed of mountains and uplands separated by deep and narrow valleys. All of the peninsula’s mountains reach elevations of 6,600 feet or more, while the majority of the population lives in the lowlands and plains. North Korea also has four distinct seasons, the harshest being the winter and summer. Snowfall averages 37 total days during the winter, while the summer season brings harsh, hot and humid temperatures.
Looking at the region, we can compare it to what our SOF has become accustomed to during the past 11+ years in the Global War On Terrorism. The high altitudes, cold winters, and snow of North Korea are somewhat similar to what I’ve operated in in some parts of Afghanistan. As much as it sucks to operate in these environments, our mission success rate did not decline, and we were still able to operate and function at a high capacity. This is what our guys train for stateside, day in and day out, for months on end.
The humid, hot climates would somewhat resemble Iraq in some manner. Operating in 130+ degree weather in Iraq did create some issues, such as heat casualties, but we were able to redefine our training regimen to allow us to overcome the extreme heat and still be mission effective 100 percent.
The only problem that I would see affecting our men on the ground would be the fact that we would be fighting in a woodland/jungle environment. We had to redefine our way of fighting when we entered the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, urban and mountain warfare. The last conflict we had in a regions of this nature was Vietnam. Not that this would be much of an issue as our SOF specialize in adapting to any environment, but it would be somewhat of a “shock” in the difference of combat.
North Korean Special Forces
Though North Korea’s military does outnumber the United States’ military by an overwhelming number when you include their reservist, paramilitary, and active duty, we cannot let these numbers fool or discourage us. The last major conflict the North Koreans were in dates back to the 1950s.
The North Korean Special Forces units number approximately 200,000 soldiers. The missions of their Special Operations Forces are to breach the fixed defense of South Korea, to create a “second front” in the enemy’s rear area, and to conduct battlefield and strategic reconnaissance, a far cry from what our men who serve in our Special Operations units conduct on a day-to-day basis. Not only do they lack in overall mission capabilities, they also, once again, lack in operational experience.
After operating overseas on eight different occasions, I can honestly tell you that no matter how extensive your training is, nothing amounts to actual operational experience as when bullets fly both ways. This is something that you cannot train for stateside, it only occurs in combat where the boys separate themselves from the men.
North Korea’s military spending budget amounts to approximately $910 million, according to reports in 2012. This may seem like a lot to some, but when compared to the U.S. military spending budget of $683.7 billion, North Korea’s budget seems minute. Within North Korea’s total military budget, only a fraction is given to their special forces units, while USSOCOM’s budget is estimated to be in the tens of millions, and certain Tier 1 elements have an “unlimited budget.” Sure, the men who are amongst these ranks make the unit who they are, but having a budget to purchase new gear, weapons, training essentials, etc., makes the difference. A lack of a budget will only provide the men with less than par combat essentials.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the big marches on TV of North Korea displaying their military might, but is it what it’s cracked up to be? I would say negative! North Korea’s weaponry is beyond outdated in comparison to our military technology. Most of the weaponry we see on TV is extremely outdated. Although the missiles do display a great sight to the eye, we must not forget that they are dated back to the Cold War, and even with their “new” missiles, they still fail to live up to their prescribed hype. To date, N. Korea’s missile capabilities still fail to reach the Continental United States, and often fail during their test launch.
Who Would Do What?
From my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can shed a little insight on who would do what in North Korea.
Our Army SOF units would absolutely play a key role in taking down the infrastructure of N. Korea. Let’s break it down by unit.
First, I’d like to start with the US Army Rangers within the 75th. These men, as described earlier, specialize in taking down key infrastructure, seizing airfields, direct action raids, etc. Before any major ground combat commenced in N. Korea, the men of the 75th Ranger Regiment would conduct airborne operations on these key infrastructures, completely destroying them before turning them over to regular Army forces, rendering the N. Koreans incapable of launching an offensive/defensive strike.
The US Army Rangers would then conduct special reconnaissance raids on US high value targets, in cooperation with other Tier 1 units, completely disrupting the N. Korean’s chain of command. Please note that N. Korea has an estimated of 78 usable airfields. This would be quite a job for the 75th Ranger Regiment, but not impossible. The Regiment trains extensively on such tasks, and is capable of taking over any airfield within an 8 hour time period.
The men of the US Special Forces would more than likely be in the region before any publicized or major offensive. Their mission would be to conduct covert recon operations behind enemy lines, gathering intel on troop movement, key personnel and special infrastructure, such as missile launch pads, designating them for future air and ground attacks. Being that they operate in very small teams and being able to remain unseen would render them key in the over mission success. The SF units would also join in on some direct action raids.
The US Army Tier 1 unit, Delta Force, would do what they do best. In conjunction with SEAL Team 6, they would hit the top leaders of the N. Korean military hard. In addition to capturing/killing key personnel, they would also interrogate and extract information from them, trickling it down to the Tier 2 and 3 elements for future tracking and strikes.
Navy and Marines SOF
The US Navy SEALs would play a very key role in what they do best…working on land, sea, and air. Not only would they destroy key infrastructure on land and in the sea with MARSOC units, they would also perform key, strategic and precise hits on land in cooperation with and alongside US Army Rangers.
The US Navy SEAL Team 6 element would more than likely operate hand-in-hand with the US Army Delta Force, conducting covert operations behind enemy lines, taking out/down key targeted personnel. With a few nuclear sites bordering N. Korea’s coast, I’m sure the SEALs and MARSOC would play a key role in destroying the infrastructure, or displaying a feint maneuver, allowing other SOF’s to conduct operations in the region, similar to the “feint” maneuver displayed in Desert Storm. We may also find the SEALs conducting their historical mission, taking out coastal obstacles, ships, rigs, etc., clearing the the route for conventional forces.
Our SOF Performance
After working with the majority of the units listed, I would assume that the mass hit of SOF units in strategic locations would render the N. Korean military mission capability crippled. Our military now understands very well how to properly deploy our SOF units to their fullest capability, having learned through trial and error (the 90s and GWOT).
Properly deploying them to their areas of specialties at a strategic time, would not only create mass chaos, it would disassemble key elements in power of the regime.