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Fighting In Korea With Antiquated Weapons: South Korea and the U.S. Would Crush North Korea - Without Landmines

by Caleb Rossiter

(Caleb Rossiter is a consultant on landmine policy for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and the author of the recently-released VVAF study, Winning in Korea without Landmines.)

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung recently made a state visit to North Korea, during which he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to remove landmines from a rail line that will link the two countries. The visit underscored the swift pace of events that seem to be moving the two nations to reconciliation, and perhaps even reunification. The recent thaw does not relieve some 37,000 U.S. soldiers of their commitment to defend the South in the case of North Korean aggression, however, and it could be years before the North Korean army stands down as part of the reunification process.

The United States and South Korea deter a North Korean attack across the demilitarized zone by demonstrating their military dominance in oft-repeated full-scale exercises. The North is very aware of this dominance and probably views any invasion as an act of regime suicide. The North Koreans got a taste of what a future war against the U.S. and South Korea would be like in 1999, when their patrol boats attacked South Korean patrol boats in disputed territorial waters. The battle pitted binocular-sighted, hand-turned guns against lethal modern radar and computer-operated cannons: within minutes, seven North Korean gunboats were knocked out of service.

The U.S. military claims that its arsenal of 800,000 antipersonnel and 250,000 anti-vehicle landmines is a key component in any defense of South Korea. The U.S. plans to use these mines, stored in warehouses in the South, to slow attacks by North Korean massed infantry. But will these mines even be deployed? A cursory examination of U.S. mine deployment plans show that it would take 1,100 five-ton trucks and all of America's front line soldiers to move and plant the mines in three days.

It beggars the imagination to assume U.S. commanders will expend their material and personnel to do this - even if the U.S. and South Korea have a three-day warning. It is more likely that the mines will be destroyed - to keep them from falling into North Korean hands. Moreover, the mines we will deploy are more akin to the binocular-sighted and hand-turned guns that the North Koreans used in 1999: they are obsolete, ineffective and antiquated weapons that are as likely to harm our own soldiers (and impede allied armored mobility) as North Korea's.

The allies first put landmines into Korea 50 years ago to slow enemy tanks and troops so that the weapons of the day could kill them. Since then, the United States has developed weapons that can kill tanks and troops on the move - weapons that will not pose a threat to our own soldiers and that do not, like our landmines, hamper our own ability to maneuver effectively and rapidly. These "smart weapons" include the 13 Brilliant Anti-Armor Technology (BAT) gliders that are carried to the battlefield by just one missile. The gliders hover over a tank formation, divide up the targets, and fire explosively-formed projectiles into each one with remarkably high kill rates.

Buying and deploying more BATs and similar Sensor Fused Weapons, along with the Joint-STARS targeting aircraft that let commanders use these tank-killers in all weather and in real-time, would allow U.S. and South Korean troops to destroy North Korea's tank columns before many could even cross the South Korean border. Similarly potent anti-personnel weapons will decimate exposed any North Korean infantry.

Why haven't U.S. commanders opted for more smart weapons over landmines? The answer lies in the inherent, and appropriate, caution of those entrusted with the lives of our soldiers. American commanders want to maintain all options, because they hope that having options will save American lives. But that is not true in the case of landmines. After blunting North Korea's tank attack on the South (and we are sure to do so, since it can only come on a narrow corridor between mountains, which we control and have filled with anti-tank weapons) the American and South Korean armies will head north to Pyongyang in a decisive counteroffensive to destroy the North Korean army. On the way north, we will have to run through our own minefields. And just as happened in Operation Desert Storm, commanders will warn their troops to take care - or even slow their advance - for fear of tripping across our antiquated and obsolete landmines.

We should take pride in the success of the costly strategy of deterrence that we have funded and that our young warriors have implemented at the high cost of lives lost in realistic, constant combat training. We have the most lethal, mobile, high-tech military in the world - which is steeled by our nation's commitment to defend the freedom of our South Korean ally. At a time when the U.S. military is asking for an increase in its level of funding, it use some of that increase to step up purchases of smarter, more lethal and more mobile weapons - weapons for our forces in Korea. When this happens, we can get rid of those outdated and militarily ineffective landmines.

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