Facing Down an Arsenal: Considering Agile Combat Employment in Korea


In March of 2023, commuters in South Korea had a front-row seat to an unexpected airshow: an armada of U.S. and Korean attack and cargo aircraft unceremoniously landing on the highway in front of them. These aviators demonstrated their ability to survive and operate even after their primary airfields succumbed to a North Korean missile attack. Meanwhile, airmen from Osan Air Base deployed dispersed detachments of fighter aircraft and support personnel. Led by junior officers and sergeants, these dispersed teams continued to generate exercise combat sorties despite significant logistical hurdles, intermittent communications, and artillery bombardment from a simulated adversary. Begun as an experiment, these events grew to something more: a demonstration of what a survivable, credible deterrent might look like in Korea.

In the past five years, the U.S. Air Force has reoriented its focus toward a potential conflict with China, the “pacing threat” outlined in the 2022 National Security Strategy. To better prepare for combat against an adversary like China, the Air Force has adopted agile combat employment: a doctrine of dispersing combat aircraft to numerous bases, greatly complicating Chinese targeting. Unfortunately, the same urgent “problem framing” has not informed a similar look at another Indo-Pacific flashpoint: an increasingly belligerent and nuclear-armed North Korea. Recent North Korean bellicosity — and South Korean assertiveness in response — warrants continued intellectual investment in how to position U.S. forces in this part of the world. 

The North Korean threat has changed, and now the same operational problems driving the Air Force to adopt agile combat employment against China are present in North Korea: long-range precision fires with the potential to overwhelm hardened air bases. Fortunately, the Air Force can address these concerns by exploring a modified version of agile combat employment in Korea. Furthermore, Korea has some advantages that offset the challenges normally associated with agile combat employment, including assured allied support, robust lines of communication, and prepositioned war materiel. 



Airpower is the United Nations Command’s greatest asymmetric advantage, a deterrent that has maintained peace for seventy years. This deterrent should be survivable to remain credible, requiring fresh thinking in the face of new threats. Using the same harsh logic applied to the rest of the Pacific, the Air Force will likely conclude that agile combat employment is the key to keeping airpower in Korea credible.

A Growing Threat: The Need for Agile Combat Employment Experimentation in Korea

Over the past three decades, both China and Russia have invested in precise long-range fires with the capability to disrupt any buildup of regional airpower — especially the kind of massive buildup used in Operation Desert Storm. While not singularly decisive, such weapons are sufficiently precise and numerous to make any concentration of combat aircraft at major bases prohibitively costly. Russia demonstrated lethal examples of such standoff weapons against Ukraine, while the establishment of the independent People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force signaled China’s focus on long-range missiles.

It is crucial not to underestimate these threats. A recent open-source wargame pitting the United States against China found that the U.S. Air Force stood to lose up to 700 combat aircraft in three weeks in a conflict over Taiwan, and 90 percent of those aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The same wargame concluded that further investment in aircraft dispersal was urgently needed. Recognizing that its preferred, highly efficient “mega base” construct was becoming extremely vulnerable, the U.S. Air Force adopted agile combat employment as its best mitigation.

The same logic underlying aircraft dispersal in a conflict against China is present in North Korea. The Korean People’s Army has the largest artillery force in the world and has recently been outfitted with new 300mm multiple-launch rocket systems. These systems have “negligible” circular-error-probable (likely miss distance) and can probably range all major bases in the northern half of South Korea — including those that host U.S. combat airpower. This is to say nothing of the nuclear-capable cruise and ballistic missiles fielded by the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force. Additionally, unlike China, North Korea could employ a deadly combination of conventional and chemical weapons. These precise conventional systems could degrade any chemically protected shelters, allowing chemical weapons to cause major disruptions to an airbase. Furthermore, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has indicated that he intends to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with the United States. The consolidation of U.S. combat power in a small handful of bases in South Korea is a tempting target for a nuclear strike. Finally, North Korea has the largest special operations force in the world, with over 200,000 troops deployable from an armada of aircraft, submarines, and hovercraft. These forces would create a “second front” in South Korea, and one of their targets would likely be major airbases. Even a few infiltrators on a flightline of densely packed aircraft could wreak havoc, as tragically unfolded at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in 2012.

While all four of these factors (precision, combined conventional/chemical attacks, nuclear threats, and special operations forces) are different, they all have one feature in common: They’re particularly useful against concentrated, densely packed, easily located targets. While U.S. bases in Korea traditionally focus on hardening to counter threats, the increasing lethality and precision of North Korean weapons should drive significant questioning about this approach. Such logic has been applied to a fight against China and should now be considered in Korea. The increasing belligerence of both China and North Korea should increase the urgency of this investigation.

The Case for Optimism: Why Korea is Unusually Well-Suited for Agile Combat Employment

Agile combat employment has numerous vulnerabilities, which are documented in series of critiques from Chinese academics associated with the People’s Liberation Army. While these vulnerabilities would be severe in any conflict against China, they may not apply to a conflict in Korea. 

The first of these vulnerabilities is the susceptibility of dispersal bases to detection and subsequent targeting. Against an adversary with sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance this is a potentially crippling vulnerability. However, North Korea has no high-altitude, space-based, or penetrating reconnaissance. While North Korea presumably knows about every airfield in South Korea, it lacks timely intelligence to know how assets are dispersed between (and within) airfields. Without the aid of a third party, North Korea would probably struggle to shift fires in response to the dispersal of aircraft.



The second vulnerability that the Chinese academics identified was that agile combat employment is reliant on allied nations’ willingness to host U.S. assets. While nations like Japan are likely to support the dispersal of U.S. assets, other Indo-Pacific countries might be hesitant to choose sides in a war between superpowers. Helpfully, the situation in Korea is clearer: The commitment of both the United States and Republic of Korea to fight in the face of North Korean hostilities has never been in serious question.

The third identified challenge of agile combat employment is the difficulty of logistics sustainment of numerous dispersal bases. Without significant prepositioned stockpiles, such dispersal bases would still be reliant upon the highly targetable main bases after only a few days of fighting. This is particularly problematic when an adversary’s operational reach extends into one’s own rear area. Such was the case for the Polish Air Force in 1939. Anticipating a German surprise attack, the Polish Air Force dispersed to a network of secret airfields. Predictably, the vacated main bases acted as decoys, drawing Luftwaffe attacks. However, dispersed operations brought challenges: As the Wehrmacht advanced, Polish squadrons withdrew eastward, with wear and tear on their aircraft after each move. Some units redeployed six times in one week. Ground crews took days to rejoin. Worse, many supplies were left behind, resulting in critical fuel shortages after a week. The Polish case is an analogue for agile combat employment. At best, it preserves combat power in the face of superior enemy firepower. At worst, it creates unsolvable logistics problems.

Fortunately, in South Korea there is already a robust stockpile of war materiel, with several co-located operating bases acting as “warm” bases. Should the use of truly austere fields be required — such as Korea’s system of highway emergency landing strips — the robust rail, road, and port systems of South Korea provide multiple redundant pathways for logistics to support them. This contrasts sharply with the potentially isolated island-basing construct envisioned for a war with China. Additionally, the presence of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea provides a mechanism to accelerate any logistics movement between dispersal bases. Such Army support to agile combat employment has already been proposed as one of the lessons emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Small-scale exercises in transporting Air Force munitions using Army helicopters have already occurred in Korea. While dispersed logistics would be challenging, Korea has inherent advantages not found elsewhere.

The Chinese academics failed to identify a fourth major challenge of agile combat employment: the difficulty in commanding and controlling dispersed aircraft. Assuming that communications networks could suffer heavy physical and electromagnetic attack, Air Force leaders emphasize the need for units to operate semi-autonomously for prolonged periods. Indeed, such principles underlie the chief of staff’s “Action Orders” to airmen, emphasizing the importance of low-level initiative and leadership. In Korea such efforts would be easier to synchronize. The war plans in Korea are well understood by all units stationed there and are frequently exercised by every echelon. Thus, even if cut off from higher headquarters, detachments would have a strong understanding of their mission priorities. Furthermore, there are multiple military and civilian communications networks available in Korea — realistically, units could maintain some form of contact with higher headquarters.

How to Begin: Four Observations

Agile combat employment against North Korea would look different than against China. Compared with those in Korea, U.S. bases in other Western Pacific countries have less hardened infrastructure. This makes the choice between hardening or dispersal pointed, such that dispersal might be the only viable defense. This scarcity should not constrain the thinking in Korea, where both “stay-and-fight” and “dispersal” bases are already hardened. Dispersal complements hardening because each detachment that disperses draws attention and firepower away from the main base, thereby improving its durability. 

Additionally, substantial bottom-up experimentation exists, and senior leaders should look for replicable, scalable innovations. For instance, the United States and South Korea have practiced multinational launch/recover operations on highway emergency landing strips. Similarly, major U.S. exercises now trial a “hub and spoke” basing construct from agile combat employment doctrine. Finally, airmen have found ways to package critical communications hardware, making it rapidly deployable — including in the back of the ubiquitous Korean “Bongo” truck. Senior leaders should seek out the best innovations and expand them.

Furthermore, models, simulations, and wargames can identify the correct balance between concentration and dispersal. Korea already has a robust system of operational-level simulation and wargaming sufficient to explore agile combat employment. Such experimentation should identify the optimal ratio between concentration and dispersal during a crisis or conflict, identify the major decision points at which that ratio should be adjusted, and then write these findings into existing war plans.

Finally, Air Force leaders can capitalize on substantial secondary benefits to agile combat employment experimentation in Korea. Aligning Korea-based combat airpower with the rest of Pacific Air Force’s doctrinal “playbook” would streamline integration in any contingency, whether other Pacific units were deployed to reinforce Korea or whether Korea-based units were redeployed to deter China. Also, thousands of young airmen and officers begin their careers with a Korea tour — introducing agile combat employment earlier in their careers will benefit the Air Force as a whole. 

The Call for Action 

There is a real danger to overfitting agile combat employment, yet that should not detract from serious consideration of its merits. To guard against overfitting it’s worth asking two questions. First: Does dispersal preserve (via survivability) more combat power than it costs (via logistical inefficiencies)? The fact that logistics collapse is possible in dispersed operations is not itself an argument against agile combat employment — instead, it is merely an argument for detailed analysis to identify the right balance. Korea has significant advantages in both survivability, dispersal, and logistics, but detailed study remains.

Second, consider an adversary’s operational reach: Is there sufficient depth to disperse airpower and its attendant logistics support for the duration of the campaign? In the case of a Korean conflict, many of the North’s long-range conventional weapons cannot range the southern half of South Korea. Although a major land invasion is possible, it is unlikely to proceed far south given U.N. Command overmatch on the ground. Disruptive effects from special operations forces are a threat, but such forces would be quickly overwhelmed by the South Korean army’s massive reserve components. The Korean case stands in marked contrast to the aforementioned case of Poland in 1939, where German air and land forces had greater speed, range, and overmatch throughout the battlespace.

With increasingly bellicose military actions and rhetoric from both North Korea and China, the risks for a miscalculation — and resumption of the Korean War — are higher than at any time in years. Coupled with increasingly deadly North Korean capabilities, this is a poor time for intellectual complacency. Fortunately, significant bottom-up experimentation has already been underway. These efforts should be accelerated and synchronized. 

All of the fundamental assumptions urgently driving agile combat employment consideration against a Chinese threat now exist for the North Korean threat. It’s time to match that sense of urgency in Korea.



Lt. Col. Zach Hughes recently completed a tour as commander of the 25th Fighter Squadron at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. He is an U.S. Air Force senior pilot with over 2500 hours in the A-10C, including 1100 combat hours in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Tech. Sgt. Chelsea FitzPatrick