South Korea Reveals Plan to Hit The North With a Huge Missile Barrage If War Erupts

The strategy clearly aims to deter Kim Jong-un, but it could prompt new North Korean provocations.

Sipa via AP

As tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high, South Korea has publicly revealed a three-layer attack strategy, along with plans to acquire additional types of ballistic missiles, which it could put into action in the event of any conflict with North Korea. The disclosure appears to be the latest in a string of surprisingly detailed military announcements that South Korean authorities have been making to deter an increasingly belligerent Kim Jong-un, but could just as easily provoke the pariah state.

South Korea’s Army included the missile strike concept in a report to the Defense Committee of the country’s National Assembly as part of an annual audit. The strategy, coupled with the acquisition of new ballistic missiles, was part of a larger five-pillar modernization plan that also included improving the capabilities of the country's conventional ground forces, adding more drones and unmanned ground vehicles to the force, crafting a new battle management network, and the already announced formation of a specialized unit for so-called “decapitation strikes” to surgically neutralize key North Korean figures and assets during a crisis, which we at The War Zone have already examined in detail.

The review specifically said that the main goal of the three tier missile attack plan, which sounds very similar to South Korea’s existing “Kill Chain” concept, was to present North Korea with the threat of rapidly losing much of its ballistic missile, nuclear weapons, and long-range artillery capabilities, which the South Korean Army said would be “unbearable costs” for Kim Jong-un’s regime. “We would use those three-types of missiles as the first salvo of the missile strike and concentrate them during the initial phase of war to destroy North Korea’s long-range artillery units and missiles located in ballistic missile operating area,” the report explained, according to The Korea Herald.

The three missiles in question are South Korea’s existing indigenously developed Hyunmoo-2 short-range ballistic missiles, along with two new surface-to-surface designs, the Korean Tactical Surface-to-Surface Missile (KTSSM) I and II, which are still in development. South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Group first publicly displayed the KTSSM-I, which it dubbed “The Artillery Killer,” at the annual International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, or ADEX, in Seoul earlier in October 2017.

The KTSSM-I has a range of approximately 75 miles and looks very much like the U.S. military’s Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), though it’s unclear what, if any, connection there actually is between the two systems. Unlike the tracked or wheeled launchers Americans use to fire ATACMS, Hanwha has developed a fixed, four-round launcher that South Korea would likely emplace at multiple, hardened locations within striking distance of the North.

"KTSSM-I will strike the enemy's tunnels with the 170-mm self-propelled howitzers and 240-mm multiple-rocket launch systems," the South Korean Army noted in its report to the National Assembly, according to South Korea's Yonhap News. Hanwha released a graphic at ADEX 2017 showing the missile following a complex flight path straight into a tunnel opening.

Hanwha Group via Defence Blog

South Korea hopes to take delivery of these weapons starting in 2019. There has been one report in the South Korean press suggesting that work on this design might end up delayed by as much as four years due to the need for the United States to approve the export of various sensitive components.

The KTSSM-II, which Hanwha has not publicly unveiled, would simultaneously hit North Korean short-range missile sites and rocket artillery batteries, according to the annual review continued. Lastly, the Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missiles would strike nuclear weapons related sites, including those underground. Earlier in 2017, South Korea released footage of a test of the Hyunmoo-2 against a mock bunker, highlighting its ground penetrating capabilities in an obvious threat to North Korea, which relies heavily on subterranean facilities to protect its key military facilities and weapons.

There was no mention of whether or not the Hyunmoo-3 surface-to-surface cruise missile might also be involved in this attack plan. Though it is a South Korean Army concept, it is possible that the final strategy could also include submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which is a capability the South Korean Navy is expected to include in its future Jangbogo III-class diesel electric submarines. It is possible that the country may decide to retrofit older subs to a similar configuration, as well.

On top of that, the South Koreans are close to fielding the latest Hyunmoo-2C variant, which has the range to strike anywhere inside North Korea, as well as considering development of an even more capable design, referred to as the Hyunmoo-4. At present, a bilateral agreement between the United States and South Korea limits the maximum size of the warhead in any South Korean ballistic missile to 1,100 pounds and stipulates a range of no more than 500 miles. In exchange, the government in Seoul gets assistance with its weapon development within those parameters.

Ostensibly the idea behind these restrictions was to avoid an unnecessary tensions between South Korea and both North Korea and China. However, in light of major North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons developments, the U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in tentatively agreed to scrap those limits and set new standards, in September 2017, which could allow the notional Hyunmoo-4 to carry twice as much payload over longer distances.

As with previous South Korean announcements, it’s not clear how effective this missile attack concept – which The Korea Herald dubbed “Frankenmissile” – would be either in practice or as a tool for deterring Kim Jong-un. South Korea’s Army itself said it was confident it could destroy North Korea’s frontline artillery systems in its report to the Defense Committee, but did not extend this assessment to the North’s ballistic missile or nuclear weapon capabilities.

One immediate plan with this strategy is whether it will actually serve to deter rather than provoke North Korea. Kim and his regime operate a massive propaganda machine that routinely accuses the United States and its South Korean allies of preparing for preemptive strikes and planning to assassinate North Korea’s leadership, something we have highlighted at The War Zone numerous times in the past.

A public announcement of a plan for preemptive missile strikes can only feed into that narrative and potentially prompt North Korea to make additional provocative demonstrations, such as missile launches or nuclear tests, to demonstrate its own resolve to respond decisively to external threats.

Separate from the announcement of the missile strategy, Ri Yong Pil, a senior North Korean diplomat told CNN that world leaders shouldn’t be quick to dismiss a recent threat by the country’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho of an unprecedented atmospheric nuclear weapon test. “The foreign minister is very well aware of the intentions of our supreme leader, so I think you should take his words literally,” Ri said.

Kyodo via AP

North Korean Premier Kim Jong-un reportedly signing the order for a nuclear test in January 2016.

But the bigger issue is probably whether or not any combination of South Korean missiles has the capability to reliably destroy North Korean artillery and missile emplacements, as well as command and control centers and other key facilities, especially those buried deep underground. Previous demonstrations notwithstanding, it seems highly unlikely that Hyunmoo-2 or the upcoming KTSSM family have the ability to bore down far enough to be truly a threat to many important sites.

In April 2017, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway discussed this issue with regards to the appearance of the Ohio-class guided missile submarine USS Michigan and its Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles in South Korea. He wrote:

"The Michigan packs a massive amount of standoff weaponry that theoretically could reach anywhere into North Korea with a high chance of survival. It is in many ways a reminder of just how little the US would need to commit in terms of risking its own warfighters during the opening strikes of a conflict. All of this sounds impressive—and it is to some degree—but to the Kim regime it likely means very little.

Although North Korea may have their garish military parades, the US has now shown off every single known piece of conventional military hardware to Pyongyang, and it has had zero effect on the Kim regime's behavior. The USS Michigan's presence nearby will be no different. Not just that, but its cruise missiles only represent a tiny fraction of the targets that would be needed to be attacked during an open conflict with North Korea. But most importantly, they are nearly useless against the regime itself, which has deeply buried and highly fortified bunkers spread throughout the North Korean countryside—some buried under entire mountains.

The only weapon (short of a nuclear barrage) that threatens these bunkers is the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP)—but you have to know where all these bunkers are—and where the regime may be hiding—before you can put these exotic and limited weapons to use. Still, don't be surprised if we get to see the MOP in action in the near term, because the Pentagon has run out of conventional weapons with which to intimidate the North Koreans. With bomber flights over South Korea becoming little more than a lame exercise in routine saber rattling, a highly publicized practice bombing run by a MOP-lugging B-2 Spirit on a range in South Korea could be in our near future."

For a plan such as this to be successful, especially with its stated goal of imposing “unbearable costs” on North Korea, it has to have a good chance of neutralizing the bulk of that country’s ability to respond. Beyond the hardened bunkers, North Korea has been investing significantly in road-mobile launchers that would make it harder to track ballistic missiles and solid fuel rocket motors that would make it more difficult for the South Koreans to engage them before crews can fire. Troops need significantly more time to set up liquid-fueled weapons before a launch.

As the South Korean Army noted in its review, there are parallel efforts to substantially increase South Korea’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and communication and information sharing capabilities. Most notably, the South Korean Air Force will get two RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in 2018 and another pair the year after.

Though these high flying unmanned aircraft aren’t able to stealthily penetrate North Korean air defenses undetected, they could carry long-range radars and other sensors that could peer into the Hermit Kingdom from a stand-off distance. You can read more about that in our detailed explainer on U.S. military intelligence and surveillance assets pointed at North Korea.

Those American satellites, aircraft, drones, and other systems could potentially feed additional data to South Korea’s military in preparation for the missile attacks. South Korea is also exploring renting commercial surveillance satellites ahead of plans to launch its own space-based intelligence gathering constellation starting in 2021.

But given the density of South Korean urban centers and their proximity to North Korea – the country’s capital Seoul is already within range of North Korean 170mm guns and 300mm artillery rockets – even just a single North Korean missile, especially one carrying a nuclear or chemical weapon, could be devastating. If enough of those weapons survive the initial barrage, Kim Jong-un could decide to provoke a regional crisis by attacking targets in Japan, or even lash out at the U.S. military base on Guam or beyond. The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway recently pointed out that the North Korean premier could decide to launch a terrifying asymmetric attack on military and commercial satellites in low earth orbit, too.

KCNA

Kim Jong-un and other North Korean officials celebrate after the successful test of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in September 2017.

Ballistic missile defenses could help defend against these counter-attacks. The U.S. Army recently declared that it had finished setting up its Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery in South Korea and formally attached the unit, Battery D, 2nd Air Defense Artillery, to its 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, which is forward deployed in the country. Unfortunately the interceptors only guard a relatively limited area and would have trouble responding to a multi-missile barrage, especially if it came from a number of different directions at once, including from submarines off shore, which could be a possibility in the future.

Conservative estimates from experts suggest that millions of people could die in the opening salvo of any conflict that erupts first on the Korean Peninsula. Despite fiery rhetorically from both U.S. President Trump and Kim and his regime in North Korea, Government officials in the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other countries in the region have consistently stressed their desire, at least publicly for a non-military solution to the problem.

“North Korea's provocation threaten regional and global security despite unanimous condemnation by the United Nations Security Council,” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during a shared press conference with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting in the Philippines on Oct. 24, 2017. “As United States Secretary of State Tillerson has said, quote, ‘Our goal is the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ unquote.”

Part of achieving that goal will definitely including the United States and its allies making clear their willingness and capabilities to respond militarily to North Korean provocations. So, far, though, it unfortunately has had little obvious impact on convincing Kim to adopt a more conciliatory tone.