The Ghost of Donald Rumsfeld

After the September 11 attacks, the Department of Defense realized that it had no contingency plan for invading Afghanistan because no such eventuality had been conceived. In order to provide a rapid response to attacks from unforeseen quarters, Donald Rumsfeld commissioned a study to create a “to whoever it may concern” contingency, so the US would never be without a comeback again. The lead service, to nobody’s surprise, was the Air Force, probably with some help from the Navy.  Rumsfeld’s requirement created a “no boots on the ground” attack concept called CONPLAN 8022.


One of the theaters in which CONPLAN 8022 might have to be carried out was the Korean peninsula, given the fact that US troop commitments in the War on Terror might preclude a more conventional response. This post revisits the CONPLAN 8022 concept and examines how it might apply in 2010.  The Washington Post laid out the basic elements of the plan. The idea was to paralyze North Korea rather than invade it.

CONPLAN 8022 anticipates two different scenarios. The first is a response to a specific and imminent nuclear threat, say in North Korea. A quick-reaction, highly choreographed strike would combine pinpoint bombing with electronic warfare and cyberattacks to disable a North Korean response, with commandos operating deep in enemy territory, perhaps even to take possession of the nuclear device.

The second scenario involves a more generic attack on an adversary’s WMD infrastructure. Assume, for argument’s sake, that Iran announces it is mounting a crash program to build a nuclear weapon. A multidimensional bombing (kinetic) and cyberwarfare (non-kinetic) attack might seek to destroy Iran’s program, and special forces would be deployed to disable or isolate underground facilities.

By employing all of the tricks in the U.S. arsenal to immobilize an enemy country — turning off the electricity, jamming and spoofing radars and communications, penetrating computer networks and garbling electronic commands — global strike magnifies the impact of bombing by eliminating the need to physically destroy targets that have been disabled by other means.


One of the most interesting aspects of this plan is what it does not do. For example, it does not specifically address the problem of reducing North Korean fortifications, much of which are underground or heavily fortified. Military Photos has an interesting page showing Google Earth images of artillery positions, underground airbases, air defenses and the like. North Korea has apparently decided to turn its country into a vast Iwo-Jima or Okinawa-like fortress. Although immobile and primitively armed, these positions would take a tremendous amount of bombardment to reduce, if that is even possible.

But that is not what CONPLAN 8022 aims to achieve. Its goal is to decapitate the North Korean infrastructure and reduce the vascular system of this giant anthill to thrombosis. If successful, such an attack would at the very least make any offensive action by North Korea into the South impossible while making an advance into North Korea, probably by the South Korean Army, feasible at some point. While sixty years have changed much since 1950, geography is not one of them. This map of Korean War operations shows the main avenues of advance going both ways. They are likely to be the same even today.

Eventually a highway into the North will swing open for the South, assuming it wants to go there. In the meantime, two infrastructure targets stand out the most. The first is the electric grid. North Korea’s power grid is ramshackle and threadbare. In 2005 there were even proposals for the South to supply it with juice. Engineers who examined it shuddered with horror. “Technicians from KEPCO … said any such moves will require wholesale upgrading of the North’s power grid, which has fallen into disrepair since the early 1990s. They gave no details on how dilapidated the power system is in the North.”


The second, and probably most decisive, target is the North’s food distribution system. The population lives literally from hand to mouth. Any disruption of the transportation system, warehousing, cold storage and government infrastructure would create starvation in relatively short order. Even with all its pitiful cylinders firing, the North is just keeping the wolf from the door. Wikipedia notes:

By 1999, food and development aid reduced famine deaths. In the spring of 2005, the World Food Program reported that famine conditions were in imminent danger of returning to North Korea, and the government was reported to have ordered millions of city-dwellers to the countryside to perform farm labour.[63] In 2005, the agricultural situation showed signs of improvement, rising 5.3% to 4.54 million tons; this was largely the result of increased donations of fertilizers from South Korea. However, the World Food Program stated that this was short of the estimated 6 million tons necessary to adequately feed the population. Nevertheless, North Korea called for food aid to cease, and shipments of food to the country ended on December 31 of that year.[64] In the same period, news sources reported that North Korea continued to raise food prices while reducing food rations.[65]

The U.S. State Department claims that North Korea’s society is highly stratified by class, according to a citizen’s family and political background.[19]

Before the cessation of food shipments at the end of 2005, the World Food Program sought $200 million in emergency food aid for North Korea, an increase from its 2004 request of $171 million.[66] By comparison, its 2002 defense budget was $5.2 billion according to the CIA World Factbook.


The destruction of those two systems would probably implode the North Korean state. At the very least it would unleash millions of refugees onto the road. It is abundantly clear that any war the North Koreans might start would be lost by them in short order. But not before Kim had inflicted a tremendous amount of damage on the South. Not only is Seoul within the artillery fan of its old but still lethal artillery, but there also remains a chance that the North will attempt to nuke either an American or Korean target in its death ride. It is by no means accidental that CONPLAN 8022 emphasized an attack, even a special forces operation, on the North Korean WMDs.  However that turns out, the damage to the South would still be inescapably high.

Even if such a decapitation strike against the North’s weapons were successful the South could never rest easy once full-blown hostilities began. It would be forced, as a matter of necessity, to occupy the North to ensure that no traces of its nuclear program remained. That would of course expose it to Pyongyang’s ultimate weapon: the starving refugees of the Worker’s Paradise who can be expected to descend like locusts on the South. It is doubtful whether the Koreans or the US could find it in themselves to fire on these miserable wretches as they stumble towards the nearest available food.

And what of China? China intervened in 1950 to prevent the loss of its client North Korea. Would it do so again today? Maybe not. China might accept a prosperous and neutral unified Korea as an acceptable outcome. The US would leave the peninsula and the Chinese would stay north of the Yalu, content to trade with a newly prosperous neighbor to the south. But however glittering the attractions of a post-Kim Korea might be, war gaming has showed that upwards of 100,000 civilians might die in the period immediately following hostilities — even without nuclear weapons. With the nukes in play then all the bets, even in Tokyo, are off. Neither South Korea nor the US are likely to desire all-out war, simply because the stakes are so catastrophically high although they may feel it necessary to retaliate against the North simply to keep it honest. Yet  Murphy always plays a part in the affairs of nations through his powerful edict, the Law of Unintended Consequences.


Occasionally there are no happy endings to diplomacy. Some successor to CONPLAN 8022 may even now be under consideration in default of anything else. The ghost of Rumsfeld may be hovering over Obama, providing him with a Hail Mary option in the event things go sour. A determined peace activist might ask whether any alternative to diplomacy should even exist, but that requires a desire to remake history rather than to understand it for what it is.

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