In 2016, North Korea conducted about 22 missile launches and two nuclear tests as part of an effort to gain nuclear missile capability. They also served as provocation against its neighbor to the south, the Republic of Korea.
“The concerning part about this is not necessarily that they are doing provocations,” said Brig. Gen. David J. Francis. “What is a problem is they are getting better every time they do a missile test and every time they do a nuclear test.”
Francis, who serves as deputy commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, 8th U.S. Army in South Korea, spoke Friday during the 2017 Army Aviation Mission Solutions Summit, sponsored by the Army Aviation Association of America, in Nashville, Tennessee.
North Korea, Francis said, is likely looking for a “seat at the table.” And while the North Koreans have a significant conventional threat at their disposal — one of the largest militaries in the world — and a sizable special operations capability as well, he said, “their ability to use it and sustain it over time is very questionable.”
Instead, Francis said, the North Koreans are looking for an “asymmetric capability” that will give them the leverage they need to get that seat at the table. And that includes, he said, having a nuclear capability.
In South Korea, the militaries of the United States and the Republic of Korea — long-time allies — are working on ways to counter the threats posed from the north. Aviation is a big part of that, Francis said.
Army aviation units in Korea now have two mission sets they are focused on: maritime counter-special operations forces, and counter-weapons of mass destruction.
Maritime counter-SOF is designed to defeat a special operations force infill via sea, either to the west or east of the Korean peninsula, Francis said. But for now, he said, they are focused on the west.
“The primary mission is to defeat that SOF threat before it reaches the mainland,” he said.
That counter-SOF mission, he said, has “matured to the point where we have an attack helicopter battalion that for a portion of time works for the 2nd ROK fleet and the 2nd Maritime Battle Group. And their sole purpose for a period of time is to in fact defeat and destroy this threat.”
Conducting that counter-SOF mission, he said, is a multi-domain effort for the Army, partnering traditional land forces with naval forces over land, air and sea.
“We are in a situation where we are flying out over water in direct support of our surface commander, who in this case is a naval commander, to defeat a specific threat,” Francis said. “Using direct fire from our AH-64s, we are guided onto targets by ROK controllers in some cases, and in other cases depending on the scenario, we might have some U.S. folks out there.”
The bottom line, Francis said, is that U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters are partnering with the ROK Navy to provide security on the Korean peninsula.
“We take an Apache helicopter battalion and we execute attack operations over the water to find and destroy enemy targets,” he said.
He said right now there continue to be challenges, though they aren’t insurmountable. Communicating with the Koreans is one example, he said. One possible solution is putting liaison officers on ships and ad hoc mission command packages together to enable them to communicate with ROK and U.S. forces out at sea.
Another challenge is target handovers. The current interoperability between systems means they can’t happen automatically, he said.
“We are doing manual target handovers, because their … aircraft and ours aren’t able to talk from a common operating picture point of view,” he said. “So target handover is done manually.”
Exacerbating that problem, he said, is that there are more than just attack helicopters out over the water conducting the counter-SOF mission.
“You have all the joint fires, you have ground-based artillery that is shooting into this airspace,” he said. “And we have close air support from both the ROK and U.S. naval forces and the U.S. Air Force.”
When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, Francis said, “we know for a fact [North Korea] has multiple locations that have WMD, and those sites are important to us. So while we are conducting direct action, combined arms maneuver to defeat and destroy enemy forces, we are also focused on getting in control of all of those sites that contain WMD.”
Francis said the “Warrior Strike” exercises are enabling the Americans and South Koreans to practice going after such sites together.
This week, Francis said, the 1-16 Infantry, out of the 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, will work with the Korean Navy on an air assault training mission. It’s the first time in recent history the Americans have been able to conduct an air assault off an ROK Navy ship, he said.
“We believe … it’s a capability we’re going to need, whether it’s off a ROK ship or a U.S. ship, or any other type of platform out there,” Francis said. “We are going to have to have the ability to maneuver from different places so that we create options for the commander, put ourselves in a positon of relative advantage over the enemy, and create multiple dilemmas for the enemy force from different locations and different domains.”