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North Korea’s Surprise Attack, An Important Lesson in Battle Preparation

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June 25 is a day that all military planners and intelligence professionals should remember as a lesson in proper battle preparation. On that date in 1950, North Korea surprised the U.S. military with an attack that swept U.S. and South Korean forces into the Pusan Perimeter and almost off the Korean peninsula. Defeat appeared quick and sudden.

It was only nine years after the devastation at Pearl Harbor and no one believed that a surprise attack could happen to U.S. forces ever again. But it did.

For the United States, intelligence focus on a former small Japanese-occupied territory was a low priority. The mistake was missing the buildup of Communist support and the large amount of combat equipment in North Korea compared to South Korea, obvious indicators of battle preparation that we can see in hindsight. Because the U.S. overlooked these signs of impending combat, North Korea’s invasion led to a long, bloody civil war.

How Did This Surprise Attack Happen?

There are several reasons why North Korea’s invasion came as a surprise to the U.S. military:

  • The U.S. was a budding world power and had many places to focus. For example, there were Cold War activities in Europe and Africa. The U.S. had a small intelligence force, with the CIA’s founding in September 1947. By 1950, the CIA was still prioritizing areas to watch and spend assets.
  • The U.S. had won World War II, creating a sense of false confidence that no country would have the audacity to attack the U.S. America was the strong victor who had beaten the Germans, Italians and Japanese. But the U.S. did not take into account that other countries saw the massive drawdown and shrinkage of our active military after WWII.
  • Military and government leaders did not rigorously review intelligence collection management or intelligence collection requirements. The Army was otherwise occupied with disarming former WWII foes. Korea ended the war as occupied Japanese territory and later broke up into North and South Korea. Russia gained influence in North Korea after this division.
  • Military and civilian intelligence services were unprepared for an imminent battle. There was a prevailing sense among intelligence leaders that “a new battle cannot happen”, which proved to be wrong. Even during peacetime, it is wise to be aware of potential combat possibilities and probabilities.

Insufficient Military Forces and Logistics Failure Contributed to U.S. Failure to Anticipate Invasion

Military planners should remember that the military manning the Korean peninsula was insufficient to quickly deploy and logistics had degraded. The 1st Marine Division was not fully prepared to deploy from California and newly recruited Marines had to do their training on the ships that conveyed them to the battlefield. Also, combat personnel had inappropriate footwear for the climate; there were stories of people with dress shoes in wintertime combat.

History shows that most drawdowns go too far. Often, enemies see the possibility for them to advance due to a recent drawdown, especially during the early period of a new war.

Constant Vigilance Against Enemies is Always Vital

This invasion was also an important lesson to intelligence professionals, especially in the military. They must always be energetic and alert for the next December 7 or June 25. Being in the military is not an easy profession. No one hears about the minor successes, but everyone knows mistakes can be costly.

South Korean Post-War Economy Recovers with U.S. Support

U.S. troops have been in Korea since 1945, when they accepted the surrender of Japanese troops at the end of WWII. Many people wonder if remaining in Korea is worth it.

Seoul is a noteworthy story of economic recovery and success after a devastating war. It is an economic power and a member of a vibrant, international business community. The American military assisted in that growth by providing military protection and support. Early on, U.S. support fed a starving population in South Korea. Later, the U.S. helped South Korea to create a strong military for defending the country.

American military support, the Peace Corps and foreign aid all built Korea into a strong country that is now a world-recognized economic power. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks South Korea as the 11th most powerful economy in the world.

The United States took over 200 years to get to our strong economic position. Korea did it in 60 years, going from abject poverty to economic strength with U.S. support.

Strategic Lessons to Be Learned From Korean War

We rarely talk about North Korea’s surprise attack at the start of the Korean War. But it is important to remember our failures and avoid repeating our mistakes. We should remember, that in an attack, the enemy has a vote in the outcome of a battle. Adequate battle preparation can be a decisive factor in combat and can defeat unexpected invasions.

 (Photo Credit:  James Watkins)

About the Author

James Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded the 40th scholarship for national security students and professionals. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence within the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, contractor, and civil service.

James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has served in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and at the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office. James had an active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and also served 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba in addition to numerous CONUS locations. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” and a new book “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea.”

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Replenishing Intrepid from Constitution May 1862 (LOC)

Aerial Reconnaissance Civil War

Aerial Reconnaissance at the Battle of Fair Oaks

May 31 – June 1, 1862

Lori S. Tagg

Command Historian, US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence USAICoE


In April 1862, General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, moved his troops to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. His plan was to march his army on to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and end the Civil War. The first objective was Yorktown. After a month-long siege, the Confederate soldiers withdrew under cover of darkness, leaving the path to Richmond relatively unopposed.

By late May, Union forces were within six miles of the capital but had little knowledge of the tactical situation that lay ahead. On May 23, 1862, Thaddeus Lowe, the Union’s Chief Aeronaut, ascended to a height of 1,000 feet in a hot-air balloon stationed at Gaines Farm on the north side of the Chickahominy River. From there, he informed Gen. McClellan that the enemy was camped along the James River with few troops posted between the Union army and the Confederate capital.

Lowe’s rise to Chief Aeronaut started in June 1861, when he conducted a successful demonstration of his hot-air balloon for President Abraham Lincoln. When Lowe telegraphed a message to the President from a height of 500 feet over Washington, the creation of the Army’s Balloon Corps was assured. Within a month, Lowe and his balloons were on the battlefield. He sent the first air-to- ground battlefield reconnaissance report on July 21, 1861, at the first battle at Bull Run. By late spring 1862, Lowe had three balloons in operation on the Peninsula and each ascended multiple times daily to track enemy movements.

Following Lowe’s May 23 report, the situation on the ground began to change quickly. On May 25, Lowe ascended with Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, who directed Union artillery fire on a small enemy force concealed near New Bridge just one mile away. Four days later, Lowe reported the enemy concentrating opposite Union forces at Mechanicsville approximately three miles from McClellan’s headquarters. At sundown that same day, he reported enemy troops massing in front of a corps of Union troops at Fair Oaks on the south side of the Chickahominy. McClellan moved his reserves up to reinforce the Union forces at Fair Oaks in case of attack. Lowe later claimed, “I think I have reason to presume that cause of this favorable movement of our troops was mainly due to my report….”

On May 30, thunderstorms restricted Lowe to just one ascension. In the unfavorable weather conditions, knowing his movements were mostly unknown to the Union, Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston maneuvered his forces and struck Fair Oaks the following afternoon. That day, high winds prevented Lowe from ascending until early afternoon, by which time the battle had already begun. Lowe remained aloft in his balloon “Intrepid” at Gaines Farm, making reports every 15 minutes during the bloody battle. At 4:30 that evening, Lowe reported that the enemy moved rapidly toward New Bridge, and McClellan ordered the corps stationed there to rush completion of the bridge so they could cross the swollen Chickahominy to support the Union troops. Early the next day, Lowe telegraphed a dispatch stating, “I find the enemy in large force on the New Bridge road, about three miles this side of Richmond. In fact, all of the roads that are visible are filled with infantry and cavalry moving toward Fair Oaks Station.” Several hours later, he declared, “I am astonished at [the enemy’s] numbers compared with ours.”

Lowe claimed this was proof the enemy planned a much larger attack than that of the previous day and his reporting “gave our forces an opportunity of preparing for a vigorous defense.” The Union was able to hold their ground at Fair Oaks and repulsed the Confederates later that day. Lowe wrote, “It was one of the greatest strains upon my nerves that I ever have experienced, to observe for many hours a fierce battle.”

In a 1900 Harper’s Weekly article, Gen. A.W. Greely, Chief of the Signal Corps, reminisced that “[i]t may be safely claimed that the Union Army was saved from destruction at the Battle of Fair Oaks…by the frequent and accurate reports of Professor Lowe.” Historians, however, debate the magnitude of Lowe’s contribution and question the veracity of his memoirs, published nearly 50 years after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the tactical advantages of aerial reconnaissance were obvious even at this early date. Unfortunately, due to logistical issues, the Balloon Corps disbanded a year after the Battle at Fair Oaks. The US Army would not field another aerial reconnaissance effort until the Punitive Expedition of 1916.


Photo Caption:

The balloon “Intrepid” is inflated for aerial reconnaissance at the Battle of Fair Oaks.

(Library of Congress)

Hey, what happened here in Vietnam? – The answer from a soldier and CIA paramilitary case officer

A soldier and former CIA paramilitary case officer explores an answer to a question from his Vietnam Counterpart.  

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Cyber’s Hot, but Low-Tech Spies Are Still a Threat

The Edward Lin espionage case highlights America’s human vulnerabilities.
By: Neal Duckworth

It was recently made public that U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin was arrested by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on September 11, 2015, and is in pretrial confinement charged with passing secrets to a foreign government, patronizing prostitutes and committing adultery (the latter being a crime under military law). Lin pleaded not guilty, and it has not been revealed whether Lin passed, or attempted to pass, classified information to either Taiwan or China—and just recently, several media reports claim an undercover FBI agent may have been involved. However, since Lin is of Taiwanese heritage, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau quickly disavowed any knowledge, as you would expect, and the People’s Republic of China’s government provide a comment similar to “Who? Never heard of him!”—also as would be expected.

Lin’s arrest is a stark reminder that traditional espionage is ongoing, and despite such a global focus on securing computer systems in the wake of (alleged) Chinese hacking of the Office of Personnel Management, Edward Snowden’s theft of National Security Agency data, Bradley Manning’s release of classified information to the website WikiLeaks and several others, we must continue and renew the focus on countering all of the foreign intelligence methods used to obtain U.S. information.

Too often in today’s world we wake up to find that personal or government data was stolen by unknown (although often suspected) persons who found a way to hack into what we thought was an unhackable computer system. The recurrent theft of our personal data, credit-card details or sensitive government information is almost numbing to the public, but has caused a renewed emphasis across governments and corporations for cybersecurity. The data stolen from the government is unclassified, yet when properly connected and analyzed with other unclassified information, such as personal financial data, could identify government personnel with high amounts of debt and an increased susceptibility for recruitment or coercion by foreign intelligence services.

However, the theft of computer data is but one method of foreign intelligence services. Foreign intelligence entities around the world use a full spectrum of espionage techniques—not just cyber theft. I hope it turns out that an undercover FBI agent posed as a foreign intelligence officer to intercept the classified information Lin had access to, but this case reminds me of two classic operations from the espionage playbook that foreign intelligence agencies may utilize, and of which others must be aware: the honey trap and the false flag.

The honey trap is an intelligence operation that utilizes sex, either to place the target in a compromising position (one that he or she does not want revealed, such as to a spouse or employer) or to establish a “genuine” personal/physical relationship. In Lin’s case, he is accused both of using prostitutes and of adultery, so it is possible that someone took pictures of him with a prostitute and/or having an affair with a person other his wife, which could be used to coerce Lin into stealing classified information on the intelligence-collecting EP-3 Aries II aircraft, to which he was assigned. While I do not believe Western intelligence agencies use this technique, the media has reported its use by China, Taiwan and North Korea, to name a few.

This case also provides an opportunity for a false flag operation. Lin is originally from Taiwan and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. With a false flag operation, a foreign intelligence officer, for example, would identify himself as a compatriot to his target and ask that he or she provide assistance in defending “their” homeland—by providing information. In Lin’s case, a foreign intelligence officer from a third country would identify himself or herself as Taiwanese and appeal to Lin’s Taiwanese heritage to learn about the capabilities and limitations of the EP-3 and how, specifically, the U.S. Pacific Command planned to assist Taiwan in case of an attack from China. That information would be extremely valuable to China, or even North Korea.

The computer system hacks we see today are compromising U.S. national and economic security. However, as shown in the media, the stolen data is accessed through the internet and unclassified. To obtain the really juicy classified information, a foreign nation must establish some type of human connection with a person who has access to the information they need. Long before computer hacking, adversaries were exploiting the personal vulnerabilities and mistakes of their fellow man, and manipulating them to obtain information. Classic foreign espionage is alive and well, and our adversaries lack moral, ethical or even legal limitations on how they steal secrets. The United States must work diligently to educate those with access to sensitive information about the techniques that foreign intelligence services will use.

Neal Duckworth is a former U.S. intelligence officer with multiple international deployments who currently works at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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