KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 346

Combined Naval Operations during the Korean War and the Lessons for Today

Royal Danish Defence College
Prof. Ian Bowers

In a newly edited book, Coalition Navies during the Korean War Understanding Combined Naval Operations, a select group of international scholars have sought to explore the nature of combined naval operations during the Korean War. For South Korea, being able to perform combined naval operations or naval operations involving more than one country is of paramount importance. Not only is the Republic of Korea Navy highly likely to fight in the waters around the Korean Peninsula alongside the United States Navy, but any actions to maintain the international order at sea in East Asia or beyond will happen in a coalition context. If South Korea is going to use its ever-growing naval power to political and strategic effect beyond its waters, the ability to operate in a combined naval environment will become increasingly important.

This article proceeds by describing why the Korean War is an important case study in the analysis of the combined naval operations. It then describes the main characteristics of combined naval operations, the importance of interoperability and finally what this could mean for the Republic of Korea Navy.

The Korean War at Sea and Why it Matters

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been multiple incidents of combined naval operations. The Persian Gulf War, anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the ongoing escort operations in the Red Sea are good examples of the importance of combined naval operations. However, the reality is that while many of these operations were complex and difficult, they are not the same as deterring or fighting a peer or near-peer adversary. Therefore, it is vital to look to the past to gain insights into the core characteristics of combined naval operations.

The United Nations Command (UNC) naval forces that operated at sea were composed of 11 nations of differing capabilities and sizes. From the massive forces of the United States to the nascent forces of the Republic of Korean Navy to the small but important contribution of the Royal New Zealand Navy, each navy played a vital role in executing a wide range of naval operations in what was an often-difficult operating environment in the littorals of the Korean Peninsula.

Operations included destroying the North Korean navy capabilities, strategic and tactical naval aviation operations, naval gunfire support, disrupting North Korean land lines of communication and of course carrying out vital amphibious operations including the Incheon Landings and the Hungnam evacuations. While the Korean War was primarily a land conflict, it is undeniable the naval forces played an indispensable supporting role and in doing so provided a template for future combined naval operations.

The Levels of Combined Naval Operations

It is important to note that not all combined operations are the same. There are different levels of integration between the forces. They could include a limited form of integration where naval assets remain under national control but take responsibility for a specific task or area of operation. This does not require integrated command and control nor close tactical cooperation between ships of different states. A more complex form of combined naval operation is characterized by closer tactical integration or the ability to work together in combined naval groups in a way that does not hinder combat efficiency. Arguably NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups (SMG) which are composed of vessels from different countries under NATO command and are capable of high-intensity combat operations are good examples of these. The highest level of combined operations is characterized by interchangeability, or the ability “to seamlessly exchange individual people, equipment, doctrine, and/or systems between trusted nation groups”. An example of this was seen in 2020 when a squadron of U.S. Marine Corps F-35B deployed from the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth with an RAF squadron for the duration of the deployment.

Interoperability and its Importance

As the volume argues the extent and type of the combined naval operation is determined by the level of interoperability that exists between states. Interoperability in military terms is usually described in technological terms. For example, do two navies have a level of military technology similar enough that allows them to work seamlessly or is the gap sufficient to hinder tactical operations? However, while technological interoperability is important and will explained later, interoperability also extends beyond the material realm.

In strategic terms, the nature of combined naval operations is determined by the degree of consensus between the political and senior leadership of each participating country. States need to align on important elements such as command and control arrangements, rules of engagement, deployment areas and tactical-level mission sets. If any of these elements are not agreed, interoperability at sea could be hard to achieve. The difficulties the United States has had in building a unified coalition to combat the Houthi rebel threat in the Red Sea speaks to the importance of strategic interoperability.

Below the strategic level interoperability also needs an alignment in or at least an understanding of national-level concepts of operations, doctrine and terminology and a high level of trust and understanding between the personnel on the ground, on ships or in headquarters. As naval historian Steven Paget has argued, interoperability requires a high degree of standardization in doctrine, equipment, training, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).

How to achieve Interoperability?

The book identifies several key elements that are vital to ensuring that interoperability between navies is achieved. Among the most important findings was the issue of trust and understanding between the commanders and officers of the nations and ships involved. As one of the authors points out the Commonwealth navies and the United States Navy worked well together because there was a common understanding of naval warfare and mutual capabilities forged in combat during WWII. This level of trust was then and remains vital for commanders to work together in warfighting situations. However, it should be noted that personalities also matter and that senior officers in leadership positions need to be able to work together without personal animosities hindering the achievement of interoperability. In several cases during the Korean War difficulties emerged as a result of personal clashes between US and British senior officers.

The second area that is vital to high levels of interoperability is communications and the ability to effectively enable C2. Two chapters in this volume argue that problems emerged particularly for smaller navies in terms of processing the large volume of orders and other communications produced by the United States Navy. Something that was complicated further by language barriers and different coding procedures. As this book demonstrates many of these problems were overcome in time due to operational need and the skill of the personnel involved. Communications for clear C2 were vital during the Korean War and arguably even more vital now.

A key element in modern naval warfare is the sharing of information and data at high speeds to gain a common operating picture and coordinate targeting and execution. Hence, the importance of datalinks such as Link16 is increasing as is the ability to interpret data using onboard systems. The US Navy’s current and future operating concepts and doctrine will require a substantial level of connectivity and hence it is vital for its allies to possess equivalent capabilities if they are to operate at a high level of interoperability. Without such capabilities, navies can still operate together but would find it difficult if not impossible to coordinate effectively in high-intensity warfare and hence would have to operate as separate entities or in different areas of operation.

To achieve interoperability a key lesson that emerges from the book is the need to develop and maintain the skills vital for combined operations. The basic foundations of interoperability lie in the everyday business of peacetime international naval operations. Port visits, officer exchanges, combined professional military education and even conferences all provide the important groundwork for the building of mutual trust and the relationships that successful combined naval operations rely on.

Beyond this, consistent and varied combined exercises and operations at sea with a built-in lessons learned process are the best methods of delivering a combined warfighting capability. NATO is a good example of this. Its members largely work off a common doctrine, agree on standards and since the invasion of Ukraine have heightened their level of combined exercises and increased participation in the previously mentioned SMG.

What does it mean for South Korea?

For South Korea, the book does provide several key takeaways. On a strategic level, should war break out again, planners need to be aware that it may not be possible to build and sustain a combined naval fleet of a similar size. This is not only due to naval resource constraints across the world but also the perceived risks of operation close to the Chinese littoral. In this sense achieving strategic interoperability with international partners is vital for South Korea and the US.

For the ROKN, the presence of United States Naval Forces Korea in Busan where the staffs of both navies can interact relatively easily is an excellent basis for the building and maintenance of trust. The number of exercises that the ROKN conducts with the US not only reinforces this trust but also improves interoperability at the tactical level. The growing technological sophistication of the ROKN only serves to improve this.

However, South Korea and the ROKN are now in a position to support much more than just exercise, but also take part in international operations far from home.

The ROKN by participating in operations such as those that are ongoing in the Red Sea not only build strategic trust but also demonstrates its capacity to operate in real-world scenarios alongside international partners.

Ian Bowers an associate professor at the Institute of Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College. He is the lead researcher and director of their Multi-Domain Operations program. He also specialises in the future operational environment, sea power, deterrence and South Korean security.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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