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Major Theater War Phases

A successful campaign requires the orchestration of many missions with many different forces, coordinated to have a strong combined effect in unraveling and defeating the enemy. US planning for fighting and winning these MRCs envisages an operational strategy that, in general, unfolds in phases, recognizing that in practice some portions of these phases may overlap.

Phase I -- Halting the Invasion. CINCs plan for the possibility that an attack against vital US interests or forces could occur without prior warning or in spite of deterrence actions. Rapidly defeat initial enemy advances short of their objectives in two theaters in close succession, one followed almost immediately by another, is absolutely critical to the United States' ability to seize the initiative in both theaters and to minimize the amount of territory the coalition must regain from the enemies. Failure to halt an enemy invasion rapidly can make the subsequent campaign to evict enemy forces from captured territory much more difficult, lengthy, and costly. It could also weaken coalition support, undermine US credibility, and increase the risk of conflict elsewhere. By the same token, a force that is clearly capable of defeating aggression promptly should serve as a robust deterrent by denying would-be aggressors the prospect of success. The threat or use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) is a likely condition of future warfare, including in the early stages of war to disrupt US operations and logistics. These weapons may be delivered by ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, aircraft, special operations forces, or other means.

Routinely on patrol in foreign waters, maritime forces could be among the first US forces to respond in a regional conflict. Operating from the sea or points closer to shore, they could deploy carrier-based aircraft, Tomahawk missiles, and naval surface gunfire against advancing land forces. In tandem with land-based air and ground forces, maritime forces would secure dominance of the air and sea. If necessary, they could also launch and support forcible-entry operations.

Selected Army forces and Marine MAGTFs would move rapidly to help coalition forces establish a viable defense, thereby minimizing the loss of critical facilities and territory. These forces would be introduced through friendly ports and airfields, if possible. If necessary, forcible-entry operations could be conducted using sea-based, airborne, or air assault forces working singly or in concert. Selected heavy force elements, falling in on prepositioned equipment, also would participate in this opening phase of an MRC. Aviation and maritime forces would establish control of the air and sea, thus protecting the deployment and employment of ground units.

Aviation forces play a crucial role in the United States' initial response to distant contingencies. In particular, the use of both land- and carrier-based strike aircraft to interdict enemy armor formations in the opening days of a conflict is key to delaying an enemy's advance until reinforcements arrive in the theater. Heavy bombers are expected to contribute increasingly to this early antiarmor role by the end of the decade as advanced conventional weapons and logistics support for sustained operations become more commonly available to them. Elimination of enemy weapons of mass destruction would also be an early priority for aviation forces, as would establishment of air superiority. Gaining control of the skies is critical to the effective conduct of air-to-ground operations as well as to the protection of U.S. and coalition forces, particularly at debarkation points.

Phase II -- Force Buildup / Deploy Decisive Force (DDF) When confronted with unambiguous warning, CINCs in threatened regions will be prepared to receive an initial reinforcement of supportable warfighting forces sufficient to defend successfully and, where appropriate, engage in limited offensive operations. The initial decisions in force-projection operations will often be the most critical. The selection of the earliest arriving units will have far-reaching implications. If the right units deploy early, they may help the force maintain a balanced posture, ready to respond to unforeseen events. In areas with substantial infrastructure, the commander may more heavily weight his force with combat units. When entry is made into an area requiring infrastructure enhancement, support units will be needed early in the flow and will reduce the number of combat units arriving early in theater. These decisions are most difficult when combat has not begun, yet the enemy is capable of sudden, effective opposition. In such cases, the commander must seek a balance that provides protection of his force, efficient deployment, and a range of feasible response options should the enemy attack.

As heavier ground elements arrived, emphasis would shift from halting the invasion to preparing for a counteroffensive. The majority of U.S. forces would reach the theater during this phase. Combat forces would arrive and deploy, and support forces would establish the necessary logistics structure to sustain large forces in intensive combat operations. Amphibious, air assault, and mechanized forces would conduct limited ground attacks along a broad front and engage rear-area targets with missile and artillery fire to ensure that the enemy could not regain the initiative. U.S. and coalition forces also would conduct an air campaign during this phase, in preparation for the counterattack.

Maritime forces would support preparations for a ground counteroffensive by continuing attacks against enemy targets and by ensuring the safe arrival of sealift ships. Establishing and maintaining control of the sea is critical to the effective performance of the latter task.

The buildup of aviation forces in the theater would enable air superiority to be sustained, while adding the capability to perform a variety of surveillance and ground attack operations. In the Gulf War, for example, aviation forces played a vitally important role during the buildup phase in reducing Iraqi ground combat strength through the direct bombardment of maneuver units. Aviation forces also could be used during the force buildup to attack targets deeper in enemy-held territory, such as logistics and command elements.

Phase III -- Counteroffensive / Counterattack. Force closure is the point at which the commander determines that adequate, combat-ready force is available to implement the concept of operations. Force closure requires well-defined criteria by which unit commanders can judge readiness. Once sufficient forces were available in the theater, a large-scale air-land counterattack -- possibly including an amphibious assault -- would be launched. This point in time may be predetermined and stated in the campaign plan, or it may be tied to specific enemy actions. In order to paralyze the enemy and rapidly gain the initiative for friendly forces, commanders normally seek to engage enemy forces simultaneously throughout the depth and space of the operational arena.

Land forces would have primary responsibility for engaging, enveloping, and defeating enemy ground formations. Major tasks would include breaching minefields and defensive barriers, maneuvering to destroy armored formations, dislodging and defeating dismounted infantry in defensive positions or on urban terrain, and destroying enemy artillery. Maritime forces could conduct amphibious operations or sustained combat ashore as part of a major land campaign. Ships and aircraft would support the sea-based assaults, as well as operations conducted further inland. Aviation forces would focus more of their effort during this phase on direct support of friendly land forces maneuvering against enemy ground formations. The objective of the counteroffensive is decisive defeat of the enemy.

OPLAN 5027 is the operations plan that is the "go to war in Korea" plan. Tasks performed during the Destruction Phase of the OPLAN reportedlu involve a strategy of maneuver warfare north of the Demilitarized Zone with a goal of terminating the North Korea regime, rather than simply terminating the war by returning North Korean forces to the Truce Line. In this phase operations would include the US invasion of north Korea, the destruction of the Korean People's Army and the north Korean government in Pyongyang. US troops would occupy north Korea and "Washington and Seoul will then abolish north Korea as a state and 'reorganize' it under South Korean control.

Phase IV -- Ensuring Postwar Stability. Successful combat operations are designed to bring an end to the war. When a cessation of hostilities or a truce is called, deployed forces transition to a period of postconflict operations. This transition can occur even if residual combat operations are still underway in parts of the theater of operations. Once the enemy had been defeated, some forces would remain in the theater to enforce the peace. These forces could be called upon to help in repatriating prisoners of war, to occupy and administer enemy territory, or to assist local authorities in restoring essential human services. . Following the cessation of hostilities, some maritime forces would remain in the theater to protect the peace and deter further aggression. As in the aftermath of the Gulf War, these forces could be called on to undertake a variety of missions, such as enforcing trade embargoes and no-fly zones. The tasks of aviation forces would include maintaining air superiority, performing surveillance of the region, and carrying out additional ground attacks, if required.

Mobility forces would be heavily involved in all phases of a major regional conflict, contributing both to the deployment and sustainment of combat forces. Immediately upon a decision to commit forces, ground units and aviation support elements would be dispatched to the region from bases in the United States and abroad. These forces would deploy by air, and would draw the bulk of their equipment and supplies from stocks prepositioned for them on land or afloat. They would be joined in the theater by additional Marine ground units arriving on amphibious ships. Combat aircraft would self-deploy, relying on tankers for aerial-refueling support en route to their destination. These early-deploying forces, operating in conjunction with naval units at sea, would mount an initial defense and secure ports and airfields for the arrival of follow-on forces. Studies and wargames have confirmed that the prompt availability of forces in a conflict theater is critical not only to the initial defense but to the successful execution of the entire warfighting strategy.

For the first three weeks of strategic deployment the aerial port is the lifeline to the frontline. All that is not pre-positioned or available from the host nation comes through the aerial port. After three weeks, the first surge sealift ships arrive to begin a dramatic increase of forces. Airlift remains a critical element, but most combat power of the multiple heavy divisions arrives through seaports.

Airlift, augmented by prepositioning, provides for the rapid but limited delivery of combat units needed initially to halt an invasion. Sealift delivers the majority of heavy forces and accompanying supplies during the buildup of combat power in preparation for a counterattack. The first ship arriving from the US begins closing the heavy force in theater. This event is called "Sea LOC closure," and it starts a dramatic increase in the amount of tonnage flowing into the theater. Although airlift continues to be a critical element of the force flow, the volume of tonnage is shifted to sealift. While the reception of sustainment stocks begins during the halt phase and continues throughout the deployment, the peak for the sustainment flow normally occurs after force closure is achieved. As the counterattack unfolds, sealift continues to deliver the bulk of material needed to sustain the forces in combat. DOD is rapidly closing to within 550K square feet of the surge capacity required (10 million sqft) to move the force required for a single Major Theater War (MTW).

US forces will transition to fighting major theater wars from a posture of global engagement with substantial levels of peacetime engagement overseas as well as multiple concurrent Smaller Scale Contingency (SSC) operations. In the event of one major theater war, the United States would need to be extremely selective in making any additional commitments to either engagement activities or SSC operations. The United States would likely also choose to begin disengaging from those activities and operations not deemed to involve vital US interests in order to better posture its forces to deter the possible outbreak of a second war. In the event of two such conflicts, US forces would be withdrawn from peacetime engagement activities and SSC operations as quickly as possible to be readied for war. The risks associated with disengaging from a range of peacetime activities and operations in order to deploy the appropriate forces to the conflicts could be mitigated, at least in part, by replacing withdrawing forces with an increased commitment of reserve component forces, coalition or allied forces, host nation capabilities, contractor support, or some combination thereof.

The litmus test is the capability to win regional wars in the Persian Gulf [sometimes referred to as MRC-East] and the Korean peninsula [sometimes referred to as MRC-West]. North Korea represents one of the few major military powers capable of launching a major conventional attack on US forces with minimal warning. In the Persian Gulf, the terrain is flat and open; in Korea, it is rugged and closed. In the Gulf, an unyielding forward defense is a flexible goal; in Korea, it is imperative. In the Gulf, airpower and deep strikes would dominate the initial defense; in Korea, ground power and the close battle would dominate. In the Persian Gulf, U.S. forces would provide about two-thirds of the total ground and air assets; in Korea, they would provide only about one-third.

The principal requirement is to mount an initial defense while rapidly deploying large US reinforcements from CONUS. The principal risk is that some territory might be lost in the initial stages that might be hard to regain. Although US and allied forces would almost certainly win both wars, it might be after a costly struggle. In all likelihood, only one war would erupt in any single moment, but the United States would withhold sufficient forces to deter a second war, and to win should it occur. The United States would probably deploy only about half its available combat posture to each theater.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:31:10 Zulu