Atomic bombs were deployed, a weapons depot was configured and the Air Force conducted a series of probes and reconnaissance missions to collect the necessary targeting data for atomic strikes on North Korea. One attack option included tactical strikes, intended to interdict the assets required for North Korean attacks; the other was far more strategic – targeting airfields, manufacturing, marshaling years, and transportation hubs.
On two separate occasions decisions were made at the highest levels not to carrying out atomic strikes, even with American forces in constant combat and under extreme pressure. And that should pretty well give away the point that the above is history, not contemporary news. Its a story I elaborated on in Surprise Attack.
However the reasons for the decisions not to use atomic weapons remain important today. First in the face of fierce North Korean air defense – including the active participation of volunteer Russian pilots flying advanced MIG interceptors – the Strategic Air Command obliterated the all the strategic targets within North Korea in slightly more than three months.
Given the covert shipments of supplies from China and Russia, both happily willing to bleed America at minimal costs to themselves, the strategic air campaign simply did not stop the ongoing North Korean infantry campaigns, carried out by huge, fanatic formations of ground troops. In the end tactical air support for American ground forces and total control of the air space over the battle fields themselves proved to be far more telling.
However another major factor in the decision not to go Atomic was only revealed decades later. Joint Chief of Staff Studies contain considerable doubt that atomic weapons would be decisive in the Korean ground combat. And given that the American atomic advantage was being wielded as the only thing stopping Stalin from sending the Red Army across Western Europe, the possibility that atomic attacks might not be that effective against large infantry and tank formations was not something the Chiefs wanted to bet on. Showing your hold card in advance is never recommended.
To some extent that same concern remains in play in the 21st Century – but with one major addition. Reportedly the President has ordered the interception of North Korean ballistic launches sent on various tracks and might be moving to add to that order, covering launches over Japan. There are a number of problems with such orders, including major asset deployment issues and the limitations of the various anti-missile systems in the US inventory. A number are outlined in the article at this link:
At the moment a limited number of tests have given some indication that those systems work – but the tests were in controlled environments and with assets deployed in the right place to match the types of missiles involved. To some extent anti-ballistic missile defense is as much a psychological deterrent as are atomic weapons, but if the U.S. actually attempted combat intercepts of both intermediate and long range North Koran ballistic missiles, and failed, that deterrent could be dramatically undermined. Hopefully the President’s military advisors have been able to communicate this as part of the decision mining calculus for upping the ante…hopefully.
Addendum: In light of the President’s remarks about North Korea soon ceasing to exist, the US reconnaissance flights off the North Korean Coast north of the demilitarized zone and their response in regard to those flights – all occurring over this weekend – I thought I should provide some historical context. The following article describes an incident in 1969, and demonstrates that foolish or not, they do respond.