Munitions Supply for High Intensity War in Korea


2017-05-31 By Danny Lam

During the Korean War, US forces were able to draw on ample surplus inventory left over from World War II.

Nevertheless, ammunition shortages materialized as consumption rates far exceeded expectations early in the conflict. Later, General Ridgeway’s use of firepower to save allied lives strained supply even more.

Shortages recurred again during the Vietnam, Gulf War I, and presently the anti-ISIS campaign depleted stocks of precision munitions faster than they can be produced with existing facilities.

Draws by allies are an additional strain on US stocks.

Stockpiling of ammunition was practical when they have long shelf lives (e.g. .50 cal rounds) and can be inexpensively stored in depots or dumps. Modern precision munitions are expensive items to stockpile.   PGMs are made with sensors, electronics, and other high tech components – both hardware and software – that require periodic maintenance, particularly if it is deployed at sea or land that makes it costly and difficult to retain large peacetime stockpiles.

Munitions use to be relatively simple to produce industrial products. Precision munitions that have become dominant today require many components that have complex and tightly controlled manufacturing processes and long lead times combined with rapid obsolescence.

Many components are (often sole) sourced from outside the US from facilities in Asia that may be disrupted by war or embargos.

JSOW is a family of low-cost, air-to-ground weapons that employ an integrated GPS-inertial navigation system and thermal imaging infrared seeker. Credit: Raytheon

Or require processing from facilities that are located in potential belligerents.

Globalized supply chains with suppliers of many components required for military systems located in belligerent or neutral nations have not been tested in a large scale war since WWII.

How quickly these issues can be worked around during wartime and what it would cost is the question.

The long life of many military systems (measured in decades) historically necessitate “lifetime buys” of components which are then stored or stockpiled in order to assure availability.   Parts stockpiles face the risk of both rapid depletion and obsolescence from unexpected surge demands.

While newer defense systems are beginning to be designed for regular technology refreshes and software upgrades during their life, many existing legacy systems remain costly and difficult to upgrade.

All of these issues are manageable during the post-war era of slow motion, minor wars.

A high intensity, long duration conflict that exhaust or obsolete the existing stockpiles, or disrupt global supply chains, however, will overstress these antiquated logistics systems and overwhelm them.

While supplies of munitions for expected conventional operations in the Korean peninsula (e.g. a) offshore, b) aerial, c) high-tech options) are adequate under the replenishment proposed in the 2018 defense budget.

The question is, what contingencies would upend existing plans?

A major contingency are allies that have failed to lay in adequate stocks of their own that will be turning to the US as the lender (or supplier) of last resort.

Time and time again, the US have had to rush supplies of consumables and weapons to allies that failed to anticipate and provide for what they committed themselves to: whether it is the European led anti-Gadhafi Libya campaign that required US provided ISR assets and supplies of precision munitions, or allied troop contingents that required US operated logistics for something as simple as fuel in Afghanistan.

It is a foregone conclusion that Japan and South Korea, beside other allies, will rapidly exhaust their stockpile of consumables in a high intensity Korean conflict.

Or allies will deploy antiquated CF-18s against a potentially state-of-the-art DPRK air defense system that require extensive SEAD support just to survive.

Since Gulf War I, the US was able to count on the use of precision weapons with little concern for their obsolescence.

The COTS revolution, however, opened the door to competitor regimes not only breaking the US monopoly on PGMs, but also for extensive reverse engineering, spoofing and hacking of PGMs.

This is particularly the case for the older stocks that have been extensively used in many theaters that gave peer competitors like Russia and China and enemies plenty of opportunity to capture or retrieve samples from the field.

Realistically, if a renewed Korean conflict involved ether overt or covert assistance from the PRC, Russia, or Iran, it is a foregone conclusion that they will field counters to many of the PGMs in US inventory. Older model JDAMs, for example, cannot be expected to work reliably.

Obsolescence puts a premium on the US being able to expeditiously field follow on generations of existing technologies, both hardware and software to replace or update the existing inventory faster than they can be obsoleted again.

That in turn, may run into major problems if the hardware supply chain is disrupted.

Then there is the problem of security of supply lines.

Throughout most of the post war period, the US and allies have taken for granted that their supply lines from homeland to theater will be secure without the need for defense or escorts.

That cannot be taken for granted in a conflict with DPRK equipped with nuclear ballistic missiles that can put “at risk” both population centers in CONUS and large concentration of high value targets like a carrier strike group.    

For example, DPRK’s alleged inability to precision target a US Carrier is a moot point if they have no compunctions about crossing the nuclear threshold.

A conventional military option against DPRK will be a costly, difficult, and risky proposition in the event of a long duration, high intensity conflict.

Presently, US planning evolves around optimistic assumptions that diplomacy, sanctions and perhaps a limited conventional war will be sufficient to eliminate DPRK’s nuclear ICBM threat.   Or to cause the regime to collapse on its own.

If these rosy assumptions fail, and the US have to consider the unpalatable option of a major long duration high intensity war — that may or may not have the support of allies like South Korea and may involve Iran, PRC and Russia — it can be an extremely costly and difficult affair.

All the more so if the above contingencies are not thought through beforehand.