How it May Begin: The New Korean War.


03:47 HRS Local, May 11, Above Korean Penninsula.

Like a giant butterfly net the mesh antennae of the Trumpet satellite reached out over 500 feet of black space catching electron emissions from miles below on the earth. It was listening. Listening and monitoring a constant chatter of pulses from the Korean Peninsula. The impulses were collected in the massive antennae, sent to its central transmitter and beamed back to the processing computers of the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia, the agency in charge of signals intelligence gathered from space.

The Trumpet satellite listens for the subtle tones that are the prelude to war. The chatter. The silence. A set of algorithms constantly runs comparisons to databases of previously collected signals intelligence from years of patient surveillance. A change in frequency, volume, code or any number of variables may signal a change in operations among the North Korean units along the border with South Korea.

03:51 HRS Local, May 11, Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.

The M-1978 Koksan is a big artillery piece, a massive cannon with a barrel improbably long for its tracked base. A cannon that looks too big sitting on a tank.  While the gun is intended to be mobile it is sluggish and vulnerable to attack from the air if not protected by its attendant ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft batteries. Because of their vulnerability, the Koksan are deployed north of 38th parallel, barrel trained south, in revetments called HARTS or Hardened Artillery Sites that are carefully concealed. Many of them are positioned so they can roll back into protection from counter-battery fire or air raids from the south. Their roughly 25-mile range means they can hit the outskirts of the South Korean capital of Seoul from positions between Panmunjom and Kaesong. Using rocket assisted projectiles, they can drop rounds directly on Seoul.

One problem with these rocket assisted projectiles is the increased danger in handling them. Artillery rounds themselves are relatively safe to handle until fused. Add the volatile rocket propellant to the explosive warhead and they become… less safe. An electrical short, lightening strike or any number of circumstances can ignite the volatile rocket fuel and potentially set off the warhead.

Because of their capability to bombard the Seoul area the Koksan emplacements are a source of constant surveillance, not only visual but also signals surveillance. Radio traffic going into and out of the emplacements is monitored constantly. Many transmissions are on hard wire coms over cables buried deep in the ground to prevent eavesdropping and damage from airstrikes or artillery barrages. But not all.

Heavy artillery is a decidedly medieval weapon. Like a giant siege catapult from medieval times or the massive railway cannons of the world wars they are a brute force, low tech system. They rely on few electronics, can lie silently in wait and operate autonomously as they engage predetermined targets in order of significance. The only way to defeat them is to destroy them. Most strategies for counter-battery targeting have a major flaw; they rely on back-tracking the incoming rounds to locate the battery. In other words, you have to survive the first salvo to find the active guns and target them.

The better bet is destroy them before they fire their first round.

15:24 HRS Local, May 10, Chantilly, Virginia: Headquarters, National Reconnaissance Office.


The shifts that monitor alerts from data interpretation at the National Reconnaissance Office are calm and vigilant. Maintaining a high state of readiness is difficult so the intelligence specialists that man the computers pace themselves over their shifts, especially in times of crisis. They are calm, but focused. These men and women stand the invisible, virtual wall circling the globe and monitored from space. Very little moves on the earth’s surface without their notice.

The events of the next seventy seconds unfolded quickly. Signal traffic and infra-red intelligence both showed spikes. A huge heat flare from one of the artillery emplacements indicated the gun was… either firing or had exploded. Radio traffic over voice briefly spiked, then went silent. Immediately counter battery radar in the south, alerted by seismic detectors that sensed the earth’s vibration from the explosion in the north, began searching for an incoming round. Gun crews went to ready state and prepared to engage targets from pre-made range cards and target lists. In the NRO intelligence interpretation and routing office eyebrows went up.

What was that?

The fog of war is a phenomenon where both sides in a conflict are exposed to stimulus and believe they must react or lose the tactical advantage. The stimulus is usually unclear and misunderstood, but the decision process works something like this, “We are uncertain what is happening in the battlespace but we can no longer afford to wait or we will lose the initiative.” Military schools around the world teach the doctrine of maintaining the first strike capability.

No one understood what happened in the artillery battery that night. The crater left by the accidental discharge of a massive artillery shell left no talking witnesses, and there was no time to conduct a inquest. What the south knew was there was a massive explosion and a spike in signal activity. What the north knew was one of their artillery positions had just been taken out. Both thought it was the beginning of hostilities.

And so, it was.

  1. Chris D said:

    Tom, can you provide any more information regarding the HARTS you refer to? Do the Koksan guns sit on exterior emplacements or are they actually in bunkered positions? Thanks!

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