Exclusive: Army veteran of Korean Peninsula war planning warns of N.K. atomic tests before Winter Olympics

Retired Army Lt. Col Daniel L. Davis (Screenshot of Davis’ Twitter profile)

A leading national security expert told Big League Politics that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is fraught with hazards for the U.S. military that is committed to defending South Korea with military forces mismatched to the North Korean threat and high probability of provocative new nuclear weapons tests by the North.

The chances are pretty high that North Korea is going to conduct another missile test between now and the opening of the Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea from Feb. 9 through Feb. 25, said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, who served as served as a U.S. advisor to the Second Republic of Korea Army, while on active duty in the late 1990s.

“They have to do it,” said Davis, a defense fellow and military expert for Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank. “They have to conduct a certain about of tests to make sure that their missile force is reliable and they can count on it, so it is in an operational status.”

Davis said he did not want to put a number on it, but he was concerned that North Korea might also conduct another open-air nuclear weapons test before the games begin.

“There is a higher-than-we-would-like chance,” he said. “They might value–with the Olympics coming up–that we would not risk starting a war then, because all the world’s athletes will be there–they could conduct this test and say: ‘Hey look, we have proven we have the missile capability and the ability to attach a warhead to it, so if you do anything, United States, you can count on a nuclear strike against your territory somewhere.'”

A torchbearer with the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics torch during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games torch relay on December 3rd, 2017 in Gunsan, South Korea. (Photo courtesy of International Olympic Committee)

Davis said the North Koreans would be angling for a negotiated resolution, but now there is a new complication, because President Donald J. Trump is unpredictable. “It could be that President Trump does something anyway.”

The risks from a nuclear provocation by North Korean are compounded by a U.S. military posture that is no longer ready for an invasion from the North into the Republic of Korea, he said.

“I don’t think it is even a shadow of what it used to be,” said the colonel. “Honestly, I think the main reason is sequestration and whatever it effects had–and the fact that we have completely reoriented our combat focus from what used to be the Cold War–and the North Korean scenario in Asia–to now, almost exclusively, counter-insurgency with just a little conventional packed in there.” Sequesters are the automatic budget cuts established first by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and adjusted in later legislation.

Defenders from the 51st Security Forces Squadron search for opposing forces during readiness exercise Vigilant Ace 16 on Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Nov. 4, 2015. Vigilant Ace 16 is a peninsula-wide exercise with more than 16,000 participants including augmentees from U.S. air bases in Japan. During the exercise, U.S. and ROK forces demonstrated the ability to operate in a chemical environment as well as administer medical assistance in a wartime environment. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristin High)

Davis, who earned a Bronze Star for valor, while serving with his troop commander Capt. H.R. McMaster in the First Gulf War, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been difficult, but they have not been fought against an enemy with artillery, air power or anywhere close to the trained formations equipped with a modern logistical system presented by the North Korean military.

“I’ll tell you, the impact of not having focused, large-scale combat operations over such a long period of time–the skills are rapidly degraded and very hard to rebuild,” he said.

“We would have a hard time doing one conventional fight anywhere–some unexpected crazy thing with Russia in the Baltic-area, or North Korea on the peninsula, or God forbid, anything versus China anywhere else in Asia–I think we’d have a really hard time fighting any conventional battle right now,” he said.

The North Korean military, organized on a par with our military, is a different fight than going up against an asymmetrical insurgency, he said.

U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Maurice Bedard, 31st Rescue Squadron, participates in a simulated combat search and rescue mission during Exercise Pacific Thunder 18-1 at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Oct. 25 2017. Through combined CSAR training, Pacific Thunder enhances the combat effectiveness between U.S. and South Korean air forces. Exercises like Pacific Thunder ensure the region remains ready to “Fight Tonight.” (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gwendalyn Smith)

“When you are going against that and you haven’t mentally prepared for that and then, all of a sudden, you’re under heavy artillery fire, even if it is antiquated stuff, they can bring a lot of artillery fire, they can bring a lot direct fire–and we have just not had that mental construct to know how to fight an enemy that fight back on our level.” the colonel said. “We would be shocked in the initial phases and I fear it would be something like Task Force Smith.”

Davis said he hesitated to invoke the experience of Task Force Smith, the hopelessly outnumbered and underequipped force cobbled together by Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith that was the first U.S. contingent to engage with North Korean forces streaming into the South in 1950, but it could be repeated if the North was to launch another surprise invasion.

The slogan “Fight Tonight” is used by U.S. military personnel in South Korea to keep themselves always on a state of alert for an attack from the North, he said.

“It means we have to be ready for a no-notice fight from North Korea, they would launch an unexpected, surprise attack that would, where we would be caught completely off-guard, but we had to be ready to fight ‘right now.'”

Given the state of the U.S. military’s hollowed-out capabilities, Davis said it is not realistic to plan for an invasion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea, but there can be a credible deterrence. “We would just launch a punishing air and missile and drone attack to punish them for what they had done–and cause a great deal of destruction.”

The colonel said the suggestion by Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R.-S.C.) that the U.S. could field a ground invasion of the North was not in the cards.

“When he said: ‘Yeah, I think there is no regime change option, it’s full-on war if you go in there.’ If that is the case? Yeah, we have some significant problems,” he said.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis tours the presidential gardens at the Blue House before meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a visit to Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. (Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Davis said he was the fires support officer with the future Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, now Trump’s national security advisor, in the 1991 Battle of 73 Easting, the last major tank battle of the 20th century. In that engagement, McMaster’s Eagle Troop, Second Squadron of 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, with nine Abrams tanks destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks less than 30 minutes after the Iraqi force attacked Eagle Troop–thinking that the Americans would have to travel on the road, not realizing that onboard GPS systems allowed the American tank crews to navigate the desert as if it were the ocean.

In the armored cavalry, the units maintain the legacy terms from the horse cavalry, such as troop in place of company and squadron in place of battalion.

As the fires support officer, the colonel said he was responsible for all of the troop’s mortars, rockets, artillery and communicating with the Eagle Troop’s higher headquarters for coordinating with their fire support. This job is especially critical given the mobility warfare practiced by an armored cavalry unit. In fact, during the battle of Easting 73, McMaster, or Eagle6, crossed further into Iraq than U.S. forces were approved to go because he was in hot pursuit and engaged with his Iraqi foe.

National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl)

Although they two men stayed in touch after the Persian Gulf War, he had a falling out with McMaster over policy in Afghanistan in 2010, Davis said. The colonel put those views into a 2012 essay for Armed Forces Journal, “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan,” which laid bare the gulf between positive public reports about the war’s progress and the reality on the ground.

“Under fire? The best I’ve seen,” the colonel said of his one-time troop commander.

“There is nobody I would rather go to war with than him,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid that his mind is so imbued and trained to conduct combat operations, that’s the only lense he can see things and I don’t think he has the anywhere near the proper amount of diplomatic thinking and a hold of government thinking, so he could find other ways of accomplishing goals of American security interest.”

Rather than focus on the military solution, the U.S. must step back and pursue a dual deterrent-and-diplomacy track, Davis said.

“The option they are being given right now is: complete surrender and capitulation or possibly war, and there’s no chance they’re going give up,” he said.

In this situation, the North Korean regime has no choice but to cling to their nuclear option as their only protection against a surrender-or-war circumstance, he said.

“We need to ramp back the rhetoric and we need to stop threatening North Korea with all these things that we are doing and increasing military operations and training and we need to go to a deterrence, where we unequivocally tell the North Koreans if they do any sort of offensive action or any use of WMD, they could count on a swift, profound and punishing attack,” he said.

“Then, we can enter into any kind of diplomatic negotiations that we can, even if it takes a long time, many years, its OK as long as they never use their weapons and nobody has to die on our side,” he said.

“It’s got to be our priority.”

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