Rick Lamb, who spent a good part of the past two years in South Korea assessing the state of U.S. forces on the peninsula, was taken aback by what he discovered.
"Overall, I was surprised how much it atrophied," said Lamb, a retired Army Ranger command sergeant major and a commando legend who was performing the assessment as part of a contract from 2015 to 2017 with Booz Allen Hamilton. "We have been so focused on the Middle East. You have to remember, we have 86 percent of Special Operations Forces focused on the desert and it has been that way for quite a long time."
The result Lamb saw in South Korea was a decline in relationships and in the persistence of presence and engagement. Resources had diminished as well, from blood supplies to ammunition to troops available among the 35,000 deployed there.
"We took a good hard look at it and said we are not as ready as we should be."
Lamb, who settled in Lutz, is a living encyclopedia of Special Operations Forces history.
In 1980, he was on the ground for the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission that led ultimately to the creation of U.S. Special Operations Command, based in Tampa. In 1984, he helped rescue Russian defector Vasily Matuzok at the border between the Koreas in a shooting incident that left several dead. He fought during the invasion of Panama and was wounded in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, made famous in the book and movie Black Hawk Down. He would later serve in Haiti, Bosnia, Djbouti, and, finally, in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He retired and came back under a program to convert retired commandos into intelligence personnel, serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency at SOCom headquarters before leaving in 2015. He was then hired by Booz Allen Hamilton to analyze U.S. forces in South Korea.
Lamb recently joined the Global SOF Foundation, a Tampa-based special operations advocacy group.
With the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the threat there to U.S. interests has changed. In addition to advances in lomng-range missiles, North Korea has some 10,000 artillery pieces buried deep in granite mountains within shooting distance of Seoul.
"We used to have the luxury of about 180 days to get ready," Lamb said. Now, "there is a much shorter time frame to react. It is a much more lethal conflict. We are looking at probably the first 12 to 15 days needing to have forces on the ground to go after some of those threats."
U.S. forces are ramping up with nearby aircraft carriers, forward-deployed armor and an increased Special Operations Forces presence.
"I would say we are closer than we were," he said.
The size of many of the targets, especially the nuclear centers, "are bigger than most people realize and more dangerous than most people realize."
Large forces will be needed to "go in there and actually take the terrain," all while remaining mindful that nuclear reactors can melt down, "like we saw in Fukushima and Chernobyl," he said.
Adding to the challenges is the frustration among longtime allies like the British, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders who can’t share in Operational Plan 5015 — the plan to attack North Korea. This is largely because the South Koreans, still angry at the UN for stopping its push at the 38th Parallel in 1953, only want the United States to have it.
The United States, Lamb said, is heeding lessons from the Korean War, when it was at first undermanned and ill supplied.
"I’m not saying we are going to war," he said. "But as brutal as this fight is going to be, we have a moral obligation to be ready to fight and end it quickly."
The Department of Defense last week announced the death of a soldier supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.
Sgt. Christina Marie Schoenecker, 26, of Arlington, Kansas, died Feb. 19 in Baghdad, from a non-combat related incident. Schoenecker was assigned to the 89th Sustainment Brigade, Wichita, Kansas. The incident is under investigation. There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 45 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman