Increasing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program have raised questions in the region as to what the implications of renewed conflict would be. The risk of the devastation of Seoul by Pyongyang’s long-range artillery and the threat of missile strikes against Japan and Guam are well established, as is the task of the U.S. and South Korean militaries in defeating the Korean People’s Army before it could inflict a catastrophe on the region. But the role of many other countries – particularly those who contributed to the United Nations force during the original Korean War – is often overlooked. As a key regional actor, Australia would find itself involved from a war’s commencement regardless of how the conflict began.
The first priority would be to evacuate Australian citizens from South Korea, with around 7,000 thought to be living and working in the country. Although this would need to take place before the commencing of full hostilities to be done in an orderly fashion, pulling everyone out prior to a conflict may be unrealistic given the likely speed at which a routine crisis could spin into full-scale war.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is relatively well equipped to lead an evacuation. If it were safe to airlift citizens to a neighboring state, C-130J transport aircraft could be used to shuttle out personnel. If not, larger C-17As could carry those eligible to a safe distance – and all the way back to Australia in one trip if necessary. Special Forces and Airfield Defence Guards would likely be deployed to protect the aircraft when on the ground.
The challenges such an evacuation would face cannot be overstated. With the Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command not only seeking to dispatch eligible civilians, but also attempting to coordinate defenses, battle damage repairs, offensive countermeasures, and the mobilization of local forces – potentially in an environment crawling with North Korean infiltration teams and in which nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had been deployed – the circumstances that would confront the Australian Defense Force (ADF) would make the fall of Saigon look tranquil. This would potentially be only one part of the challenge: it is plausible that the around 11,000 Australian residents in Japan would also have to be extracted.
After the repatriation efforts, the attention of Canberra would turn to what role to take in military operations against North Korea. Australian involvement in a new conflict would rest on two pillars. As signatories (via United Nations Command) to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, the country is perceived to have obligations to rejoin hostilities should fighting commence again. Canberra is also a party to a mutual defense pact with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty. The legal obligations implied by both are disputed, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently claiming that neither represent an absolute commitment to join hostilities. However, comments by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have seemingly committed Australia to coming to the aid of the U.S. should they be attacked in a renewed Korean War.
There would of course be complications to this stance if the United States were seen to fire the first shot. But despite President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, it seems unlikely that this would occur without some massive provocation. In any case, once started, it is difficult to imagine Canberra taking a stance of neutrality given the nature of the Pyongyang regime. It must also be highlighted that the commander of United Nations Command-Rear – a Japan-based HQ that would help coordinate allied forces in or transiting through the country for operations on the Korean Peninsula – is currently a RAAF group captain. As such, Australia would be involved by default in any major renewal of fighting.
So what would an Australian commitment to a conflict look like? Much would depend on the form the war took. A series of continuous low-level skirmishes would perhaps lead to limited action such as the sending of a warship to support the enforcement of a naval blockade. Realistically, however, things could spiral out of control very quickly. OPLAN 5015, the latest incarnation of the joint U.S.-South Korean war plan, is intended to present scalable responses to North Korean provocations. But it is extremely difficult to envisage how to break a cycle of retaliation once hostilities commence – with the endgame being an all-out war in which the United States and South Korea would seek to terminate the regime whilst limiting Pyongyang’s use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
In this scenario, the contribution from the ADF – while small in the wider context – would be notable. In the air, it is likely that the RAAF would seek to deploy at least a squadron’s worth of fighters to Japan – most probably F/A-18F Super Hornets. These would be supported by transport aircraft, as well as surveillance planes. Perhaps of greatest use, however, would be the air force’s KC-30A in-flight refueling aircraft, which are better equipped to refuel U.S. Navy fighters than most of their U.S. Air Force counterparts.
At sea, the Royal Australian Navy would probably only be expected to arrive in force after the majority of the Korean People’s Army Air Force and Naval Force had been destroyed. There would still be an air threat from land-based anti-ship missiles, as well as a naval challenge from mini-subs and fast attack craft that had survived the initial onslaught. Both the Anzac-class frigates and the just-commissioning Hobart-class destroyers are well equipped to handle these challenges. However, the Navy’s main mission would be to support the battle on land, with ships being tasked with shore bombardment and troop transport – the latter spearheaded by at least one of the two Canberra-class helicopter carriers.
On land, the Australian contribution would have to balance capability with wider concerns of compatibility. The natural path for Canberra would be to seek to deploy a brigade-level force of around 4,000 soldiers. However, despite the professionalism of the Australian Army, there would have to be questions as to how easy it would be to integrate them into the spearhead of what would be a ground force well over a million strong that had spent decades training and planning together. While the ADF participated in the recent exercises in South Korea, they only sent two dozen individuals to work with 30,000 U.S. and South Korean troops. The U.S. and Australian militaries do train together – most notably in the biannual Talisman Sabre exercises. Canberra has also announced that it will seek to work “more collaboratively” with the South Korean military. But it seems likely that, given the difficulties of choreographing them into a well-established war plan, most of Australia’s ground force commitment would focus on supporting rather than leading an advance north.
By far the most valuable ground units the ADF could provide would be Special Forces from the Australian Special Air Service and the Commando Regiments. Based on one of the Canberra-class vessels for mobility and protection, they could provide a key reserve of elite forces. Much recent planning surrounding North Korea has focused on the importance of securing the country’s weapons of mass destruction. However, the scale of this task combined with other missions means that elite units will be in high demand, and the accomplishments of Australian forces during the early stages of the Iraq invasion show they would be well up to supporting their U.S. and South Korean colleagues. For coastal operations, Special Forces units could be augmented by the amphibiously trained 2nd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
Beyond the provision of frontline units, Australia would also serve as a secure rear area for the allies. While South Korea, Japan, and Guam are within easy reach of Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles, only North Korea’s ICBMs could reach Australia. Given the limited number of these that are available, such missiles – despite Pyongyang’s threats – are more likely to be held in reserve for use in strikes against Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. In a worst case scenario, which could see the destruction or disabling of key U.S. bases in and around the Korean Peninsula with nuclear weapons, Australia could be the most viable fall-back position.
Ironically, given the controversy surrounding it, the 2014 U.S.-Australia Force Posture Agreement would probably have a limited impact on a Korean contingency. The 1,250 U.S. Marines (to soon grow to 2,500) and their equipment based in northern Australia under the deal would head north to join their comrades in the event of a war, but would represent a drop in the ocean of the overall U.S. Force. Potentially more use could come from the Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative. Already, B-52 bombers have deployed to the continent on exercises, and new facilities due to be built at RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal could make this more sustainable. Northern Australia to North Korea and back is a long sortie, but could be one of the best options in the event of a meltdown into all-out war.
Probably more important to a renewed Korean conflict would be the other, more well-established, element of the U.S. presence in Australia. The joint U.S.-Australia Pine Gap satellite control and intelligence gathering facility near Alice Springs provides command and control for surveillance, communications, and ballistic missile early warning satellites orbiting over the region, and would therefore play a crucial role in the space-based element of a new conflict. Pine Gap would also support signals intelligence work. The facility forms part of Canberra’s contribution to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement between the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
It is a misnomer to state that there are “no military options” with North Korea. There are options – the problem is that they are all terrible. But that does not allow for the luxury of ignoring the idea that a conflict may come to pass. As both a responsible member of the international community and one of the United States’ key allies in the region, Australia has the ability to contribute to an operation against Pyongyang. And while the country’s public may be suffering from war weariness after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, this will not enable East Asia’s single greatest security challenge to go unaddressed.
Rowan Allport is a senior fellow and the head of the security and defense division at the Human Security Centre, a London-based think tank. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRowanAllport