The Telegraph, 11 October, 2017 (with James Rogers)
The news that British war planners are working possible scenarios for British involvement in a North Korean contingency is both disturbing and an indication of how serious the Ministry of Defence is taking this iteration of the North Korean crisis.
It also comes as Whitehall’s civil servants consider new defence cuts for the re-appraisal of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
We say “this iteration” of the North Korean crisis because this crisis did not just begin, but really has been percolating since May 1992. That year, a team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors led by Hans Blix found inconsistencies in North Korea’s initial declaration and their findings.
The past 25 years have been about the United States, South Korea, Japan and other regional states attempting to reassure, cajole, bully, and buy North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions.
Fast-forward to 2017, and not only does Pyongyang have nuclear weapons, it is perfecting the means for long-range delivery. Because of its bellicose attitude toward the South – a democratic country it still claims to own – there is a very real possibility that British forces and personnel might be drawn into a second conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
As the UK thinks of what Global Britain means in strategic terms, what would or should Britain do if such a conflict were to occur?
Of course, all of this depends on how the conflict began.
If a conflict occurred because US Forces took unilateral action in what is being termed a “preventative” war, the chances of UK forces taking part alongside them are nil. The ghost of Iraq 2003 continues to stalk Whitehall and British leaders were reminded of this when Parliament – sensing the mood of the country – refused to authorise an intervention in Syria in 2013.
However, if North Korea were to instigate a conflict, there might be a moral and strategic compulsion for Britain to take action. After all, it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a close treaty ally of the United States, and has growing economic and security relationships with South Korea.
South Korea has recently built four Tide class replenishment vessels for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Navy’s logistics arm. London also has an annual security and foreign policy dialogue with Seoul, and last year sent a small contingent of British troops to take part in US-South Korean annual exercises Ulchi Freedom Guardian.
Despite the very slim possibility of a long conflict with North Korea – security experts often stress that such an event would be swift and brutal – it does present military thinkers with questions over what the UK could do in such a conflict, particularly in light of the sheer magnitude of forces arrayed on both sides.
Despite some pointing to the possibility that the HMS Queen Elizabeth might be rushed out to the region with a handful of British F-35s (which may or may not yet be fully operational), this seems unlikely. After all, the US has two carriers within the Pacific already with a total of 90 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters.
Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at Rusi, states that if the US were to push for British involvement, it would likely ask Britain for some of its most-prized capabilities. These include space-based communications capabilities, hydrography and mapping capabilities, mine-sweeping, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, specifically, the UK JSTARS platforms.
Britain’s specialist capabilities
According to Bruce Klingner, a North Korea weapons expert at Heritage Foundation, North Korea still fields an impressive arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles, including a modern version of the Russian Kh-35, which has a range of 70 nautical miles and houses 320-pounds of high explosives.
The Type-45 Destroyer is equipped to deal with exactly this kind of surface-skimming airborne missile threat using its PAAMS air defence capability, and could provide cover for US, South Korean, and other allied naval forces as they concentrate on air operations to take out North Korean missile ballistic missile targets.
While North Korea’s submarines are often derided as antiquated and poorly serviced, the fact is that one sunk one of South Korea’s corvettes, the ROKS Cheonan, with a CHT-02D torpedo from about 3 kilometres away. Therefore they should not be taken lightly by any allied fleet operating in waters near North Korea.
The Royal Navy might deploy Type 23 frigates which were built particularly with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in mind. With thirteen in operation, the UK could conceivably deploy a small number to fence the perimeter of any allied fleet.
Filling the gaps left elsewhere
Another role that the Royal Navy could play is that of backfilling. If US forces were to rush to the Pacific in order to bolster operations there, they would leave a vacuum in the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. The UK could fill such a vacuum until such time as US forces could return to their regional bases.
While there is a chance that a “preventative war” that aimed to bring down Pyongyang might bring in Chinese involvement, it is not clear that Beijing would takes sides if North Korea initiated hostilities.
Earlier this year, a Chinese professor, Jia Qingguo, wrote openly about China holding talks on contingency planning with Washington and Seoul in East Asia Forum, a regional blog. It is not clear whether his article was authorised or merely personal.
Let there be no question: a war with North Korea would be brutal and involve many tens of thousands of dead and should not be initiated on a whim. However, if North Korea were to strike first and the international community were compelled to respond, the UK should be able to help with the response.
While Korea and Japan would be under more pressure to help, the UK must consider its own role as a global power, both in terms of protecting its own interests and supporting its allies. As we approach the re-appraisal of some parts of the 2015 SDSR, it is hoped that Whitehall is broadly aware of these issues.