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By Jake Tapper and Jennifer Rizzo
Imagine the North Korean regime has toppled, either because the U.S. or South Korea take it out, or because of a coup, and the U.S. has to surge troops to secure the country's nuclear stockpiles to make sure they do not fall into the wrong hands.
The frightening scenario was played out at the U.S. Army War College recently, and it did not end well. The military sets the scene in the fictitious land of "North Brownland," essentially an alias for North Korea.
"It was a family regime that had nuclear weapons, lost control of nuclear weapons. The population was considered to be so brainwashed, and we had a staging area with a country in the south," said Paul McLeary of Defense News. McLeary was present as the military officials debated the plans.
U.S .troops, he said, had immediate problems surging into the North Korea-like country. V-22 Ospreys zoomed U.S. soldiers deep beyond the border, but with reinforcements so far behind they were quickly surrounded by the enemy and needed to be pulled out. American troops eventually made it over the border, but with nuclear sites located in populated areas, their mission became more difficult. U.S. forces made humanitarian aid drops to draw people out of the cities.
"They made the game as difficult as possible to really test their capabilities," said McLeary. "They're very concerned about being able to get troops who can deal with nuclear and chemical weapons where they need them quickly. And the fact [is] that over the past ten or twelve years, they haven't really invested in that capability so much. They've invested in counterinsurgency, ground vehicles, IED threats, but they haven't really spent a lot of time and money modernizing their nuclear and chemical troops."
In the end it takes the U.S. a force of 90,000 troops and 56 days to secure "North Brownland's" nuclear weapons.
"We are not very well prepared to deal with a collapsed North Korea," said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Bennett says his numbers for containing the regime's nuclear arsenal run even higher, 200,000 troops, larger than the force in Iraq and Afghanistan at its peak.
"We would have to send perhaps a third of our army to South Korea in order to deal with the weapons of mass destruction. And with the rotations we do of our forces, that's about all we can afford to do at any given time," said Bennett.
It is thought that North Korea has 100 sites linked to their nuclear and missile program. But with a black tarp shrouding intelligence on the locations, troops would likely have to fight their way through the country to find and secure them.
"North Korea has about 1.2 million people in the military, that's a very large military for us to deal with," said Bennett. According to the South Korean defense ministry, North Korea also has "about 200,000 special forces. And those special forces would be prepared to fight you like Taliban, or the Iraqi insurgents."