The Tactical Operations Center (TOC pronounced “talk”) looks like the bridge of a starship.

You walk into a large room amid computer terminals, screens, and coaxial cables running everywhere with electronic equipment. 

North Korea War Games
U.S. Cyber Command members work in the Integrated Cyber Center, Joint Operations Center at Fort George G. Meade, Md., April. 2, 2021.

The TOC  is where South Korea and the U.S. are preparing and planning for the unthinkable- an all-out war with North Korea.

This past week the two long-term allies kicked off their annual joint exercises. They do it not with tanks or troops but behind screens and keyboards in underground bunkers across South Korea.

The United States Forces-Korea uses state-of-the-art wargame exercises and simulations. The military planners and training participants use a simulated landscape to fight a pretend war with North Korea.

The exercise has all the steps leading up to a war with North Korea. All of it builds up to a victory.

North Korea is condemning the drills. North Korea says the exercises are a rehearsal for a future attack (Reuters, 2017). They believe that the practice war aims to decapitate Kim Jong Un. Especially unsettling for Kim Jong Un and his government is when the American military uses satellites to zoom in on North Korean leadership.

Whenever a large exercise is carried out in South Korea, North Korea feels that they to match it with a macho show-of-force (Reuters, 2017). North Korea moves around troops, trucks, and tanks which cost lots of money. North Korea hates doing this because their country is running out of money.

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South Korea insists that drills and wargames are defensive. The U.S. has about 28,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea. Many American soldiers join in on the exercise. Other NATO allies like Britain, Australia, and Canada also take part.

The wargames are meant to maintain the alliance’s ability to defend South Korea under any scenario.

What do the wargames look like?

The details of the wargame are a closely guarded secret. Having done dozens of wargames as a planner and staff officer, in the U.S. Army, I can walk you through a possible scenario.

The Tactical Operations Center (TOC)

The building where the wargames take place is in a large, beige, one-story office building. The main room is cavernous called the Tactical Operations Center. One thing is made very clear from the beginning- where they played by big-boy rules because the stakes are life and death even though it is a wargame.

The TOC was a small auditorium.  It was a five-tiered stadium-style seating where thirty staff officers sat. Overhead, in the front of the room sat three big giant flat-panel TV screens.

Soldiers, airmen, and Marines buzzed all over the place. They sit forward-facing computer monitors.  Each has a different job. One might request aircraft, one coordinated artillery fire and another focused on logistics. As the Battle Captain, I am the conductor of the orchestra of war.

Without windows, the TOC is like a casino. You never know if it’s day or night. Time seems to stop while you are on duty. I go in at sunup and come out at sundown for a 12-hour shift. The only break is for a thirty-minute lunch in the middle of the day.

The TOC has radios that have a complex array of SATCOM communications and television feeds. Computer monitors and consoles, telephones, charts, and a conference table for maps.

I listen with a half ear to all radio traffic. Some calls on the nets alarm me, but mostly it’s routine radio chatter. Some of the feeds take us into the heart of hostile North Korean strongholds. As the wargame started the radios came to life the pretend war against North Korea. 

The screens display live-feeds of Predator drones. The second screen tracks American and Coalition units all over the Korean peninsula- both North and South. The work of the TOC is pivotal to the war effort.

My Set-Up as a Battle Captain

All the information is pushed into two computer screens displaying different stuff to me as the Battle Captain. My main screen allows me to read real-time updates from the field. It shows the location of friendly units by small blue electronic icons on a scalable Falconview map. Positions are automatically updated by satellite and specific user-defined intervals.

This gave us in the TOC a near-real-time picture of friendly forces locations. This helps us in tracking mission progress. It provides a last known point, should the need arise, to assist American and Allied soldiers in a firefight.

This is a real improvement over the old way of using a map on a wall with “sticky notes” being moved around by a radio operator as updates came in over the radio.

The second screen follows the radio traffic as it comes over the radio on the loudspeakers in the TOC. It allows me to go back and look at stuff like map coordinates, several casualties, and anything else the team reported up in the first few minutes of a firefight.

Code words and similar short text transmissions help me to track the radio calls. I read the second screen to update MEDEVAC aircraft like sending patient vital signs and sending them ahead to care facilities.

We use two separate classified computer systems to coordinate operations and pass information: SIPRNET for U.S. forces and CENTRIX for coalition forces like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Day-to-Day Operations during the Wargame

Each morning all the major subordinate commands update the Task Force Commander (a two-star general) in the last twenty-four hours of operations.

The TF Commander gets the update on the security situation on the TV screens in the main cities and towns around South Korea. Each hotspot got a color grade— red, orange, yellow, or green —depending on the insurgency’s actions.

On computer screens in his office, the TF Commander and his staff can track minute-by-minute movements of ground units and aircraft throughout South and North Korea. He can use the same display in his office to de-conflict assets like artillery or close air support for teams that are in trouble.

The TF Commander can speak daily with senior leaders in the field on video teleconferences. Hundreds of officers and senior non-commissioned officers scrambled around the headquarters.

On a typical day, the TF Commander greets the staff with a hearty. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” The wall of screens displays PowerPoint slides and images of colleagues connected via secure video from other spots around South Korea. The darkened room with its big video screens and amphitheater-style seating looked like a NASA command center. This would go on until the exercise was done four to five days later.

About the author:

Oto holds a BS in History from Oregon State University and a MMA in Military History from American Public University. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Company Commander and Staff Trainer to the Afghan National Army. He was wounded once and decorated three times. Oto is an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve.