What If Trump Ordered a Naval Blockade of North Korea?
Donald J. Trump adores splashy gestures. On the other hand, the president displays little enthusiasm for launching new military adventures. Suppose his administration decided to go big in response to a North Korean ballistic-missile test—the “Christmas gift” Kim Jong-Un’s minions have promised Pyongyang might bestow—rather than content itself with humdrum peacetime deterrence. And suppose Washington blanched at ground combat. How to satisfy both the impulses goading it into action and those urging restraint?
Well, it could impose a naval blockade to halt shipping bound to or from North Korean seaports—squeezing the hermit kingdom’s seaborne imports and exports while confining its navy to its moorings. Is the U.S. Navy up to enforcing a blockade? Yes—but Washington must not regard a maritime quarantine as a cheap, quick, or painless alternative to land warfare. Just the opposite. It would be expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive.
Nor would success be a sure thing.
First, the navy would incur both direct and opportunity costs—especially if allies such as the South Korean Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force declined to supply ships to help squelch shipping. A squadron sufficiently numerous and powerful to apprehend blockade runners would have to linger off each North Korean seaport for the duration of the quarantine. Each squadron would need regular refueling and resupply, as well as relief by replacement ships to allow for upkeep and crew rest.
Multiply the bare number of ships required for sentry duty by two and you have some idea of the direct costs of an offshore strategy. Some 50-70 ships comprise the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, which would presumably spearhead cordon operations. Subtract submarines from that total and divide the remainder by two and the magnitude of the challenge before the Seventh Fleet becomes plain. The direct costs appear bearable but burdensome.
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