The Korean War Has Solutions to China’s Pacific Threats
Winston Churchill famously said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
“We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem.” Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller uttered this famous quote after observing that First Marine Division had been completely surrounded by Chinese forces in the Chosin Reservoir in late November 1950. This quote captured the desperate circumstances in which Marines found themselves and remains prescient today as the institution continues to problem-frame its vast area of responsibility throughout the Indo-Pacific, all of which falls within China’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ). Not unlike the Marines of the Chosin Reservoir, today’s U.S. military will find itself “surrounded” by a host of conventional and unconventional weapons in any kinetic conflict with China in the South Pacific.
The Korean War, colloquially known as the “forgotten war,” never captured the attention or imagination of Americans in the way that World Wars I and II did. Still drunk off of victory against the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, Americans were not engaged in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula until reporters began publishing the First Marine Division’s impending doom at Chosin. While it remains a largely unspoken piece of history, Korea offers the United States critical lessons as they shift focus from the Global War on Terrorism to the littorals of the South Pacific. The successes and failures of the United Nations Command (UNC) in the early 1950s are capable of repeating—both the triumphs of bold action as well as the perils of complacency and hubris—in a similarly dynamic battlespace.
There are three lessons from Korea that should be taken and applied to the South Pacific. First, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) used speed and decisive force to surprise and route Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. forces from Seoul in the summer of 1950; the United States should reasonably expect China to attempt a similar strategy in order to achieve fait accompli over Taiwan and deter counterattack by coalition forces. Preparation and the distribution of stand-in forces throughout the region will be crucial to mitigate that risk upfront.
Second, throughout the war, UNC forces struggled with logistics issues and command and control (C2) during periods of constant, heavy combat with KPA and Chinese forces. This was further exacerbated by the extreme cold north of Pyongyang and at Chosin Reservoir, especially at Chosin Reservoir. Similarly, the South Pacific will present its own geographic and climatic challenges. The millions of square miles and tropical weather systems will place a premium on survivability, strain logistics networks, and demand innovative logistics planning. The Marines at Chosin turned to the air. U.S. forces today must look to the sea.
Finally, many historians cite the failures of the senior staff at the UNC and X Corps in particular for the friction and ultimate failure in the march toward the Yalu River. X Corps suffered from self-censorship, reporting delays, micromanagement, and ultimately myopic expectations. As a command staff, X Corps was reactionary and slow to adapt. Centralized, deliberative decision-making during a kinetic conflict in the Pacific will be impossible. American forces will have to rely on broad commander’s intent and permissive authorities down to the company level in order to achieve the flexibility and responsiveness required to compete with China in such an expansive theater of war. Micromanagement will lead to inaction and defeat, much like it did for much of the UNC in the fall of 1950.
Winston Churchill famously said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The Marines have led their sister services in force design and finding solutions to the problems in the Pacific. Military planners should continue to look to this unique period in history for insight and solutions to the Chinese threat.
Routing, Envelopment, and Isolation
From the outset of the war, ROK and UNC forces were on their heels. In the initial weeks of the war, they were unable to hold key positions in and around Seoul and suffered over 70,000 casualties, ultimately being pushed back to the Pusan Perimeter to wait for reinforcements. ROK forces were not properly trained or prepared to mount an effective defense and counterattacks were ineffective. It was not until Operation Chromite, the (roughly) simultaneous amphibious assault at Inchon Harbor and the breakout of UNC forces from Pusan that the KPA faced the prospect of defeat. On September 15, 1950, Marines executed their most famous amphibious landing and by early October, Inchon and Seoul were secured, which allowed Task Force Lynch and the remaining UNC and ROK forces to link up with the forces occupying the capital. As the KPA withdrew north of the 38th Parallel, the UNC pursued them along two lanes—Eighth Army in the West and X Corps in the East from Wonsan. The UNC looked to achieve General Douglas MacArthur’s pledge to reach the Yalu River and be home by Christmas.
The summer of 1950 may repeat itself if the situation with Taiwan becomes a hot war. China will likely fire multiple volleys of missiles at Taiwan and other islands across the region where prepositioned forces and strategic capabilities are located (e.g. Okinawa, Guam, or even mainland Japan). China has been building up these capabilities in its eastern province of Fujian and has since showcased them during multiple large-scale exercises in the Taiwan Strait. These likely actions in advance of an invasion operation will look to neutralize US forces preparing to defend Taiwan itself and prevent a meaningful counterattack during the main assault.
The US cannot afford to cede influence or position; a counterattack to liberate Taiwan would dwarf Operation Chromite, rendering it untenable. American forces in the region must be prepared to support Taiwan’s internal defenses long enough for reinforcements to arrive and occupy key positions. If this cannot happen, there will be no second chance like the UNC had in September 1950.
As UNC forces advanced toward the Yalu River in October and November 1950, they quickly found themselves gapped and largely isolated. The combination of poor command and control at the Tokyo headquarters as well as challenging terrain resulted in Eighth Army and X Corps being unable to support each other and significant breaks within their own lines. The push to the Yalu was discordant at best and enabled the Chinese forces to quietly envelop exposed and unsupported elements of the advancing forces without significant combat. The results were devastating. Eighth Army was all but destroyed during the Battle of Chongchon; what was left withdrew below the 38th Parallel by December 1950. X Corps suffered significant losses at Chosin Reservoir, particularly along its eastern flanks.
Major General Edward Almond was convinced that X Corps could make it to the Yalu River as General MacArthur ordered. He maintained this position even as Eighth Army faltered and failed and dismissed Major General Oliver P. Smith’s warnings and battlefield assessments as First Marine Division was being surrounded and isolated in real-time. At the western front, Fifth and Seventh Marines were cut off at Yudamn-ni except for one rifle company at Toktong Pass, which was responsible for defending the lone supply route from Hagaru-ri. To the north and east, the ROK I Corps and thousands of US Army soldiers were completely isolated and facing brutal assaults with thousands wounded and killed.
Rather than snow-covered mountains and abandoned villages, American forces will occupy island networks throughout the Pacific. China will look to isolate and envelop these forces, not with ground troops, but with asymmetrical capabilities such as cyber and electronic warfare to accompany its conventional missile capabilities. China will look to disrupt critical command and control systems and survivability operations, making communication and reinforcement difficult or impossible. American forces in North Korea did not know they were defeated until they were suddenly facing waves of Chinese forces across and within their lines. Similarly, isolated American forces on small islands throughout the Pacific may not know they are defeated until the missiles begin impacting their positions.
The First Marine Division was the lone success story; it was the raw courage of infantrymen and the adaptability of General Smith that saved the Marines and X Corps from annihilation. The US cannot rely on personality-driven outcomes. Success in the Pacific will come down to planning and figuring out how to shape the battlespace to avoid physical and metaphorical gaps in the lines by maintaining critical communications and logistics networks throughout the region. The survivability challenges in the Pacific are substantially greater both in terms of scale and the multiple domains of war in the twenty-first century.
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Survivability in the modern era demands flexible, responsive logistics systems supported by adaptable leadership and aviation. This was true for the Marines at Chosin Reservoir and is especially true today in the Pacific. General Smith faced acute and novel challenges: battling a larger force, coping with extreme weather, trying to provide ground and air resupply, bring in reinforcements, and evacuating wounded. He relied heavily on First Marine Aircraft Wing and flying squadrons from the Navy, both providing close air support, resupply, and troop transport in and out of Hagaru-ri. He also redeployed Puller’s First Marines at Kot’o-ri to defend supply routes and protect Task Force Drysdale’s attempt at reinforcing Hagaru-ri. Puller would later provide crucial cover along the southern portion of the convoy route when X Corps conducted its breakout. The weather further complicated these survivability operations—limiting aircraft availability, disrupting communications, causing weapons malfunctions, and producing cold injuries. General Smith was successful because he understood the battlespace and anticipated enemy behavior. He also trusted his staff and subordinate leaders implicitly and especially when he had no ability to communicate with them.