Imagine a situation where American troops are sent to fight an enemy in insufficient numbers, with obsolescent equipment (and not enough of it) and are thrown into battle against a ruthless, well-equipped and utterly dedicated enemy. Now imagine that the United States, as a whole, has an army that has but one full-strength combat division on the other side of the world from where this battle is taking place, a navy with just 27 ships of all types in place to support the troops ashore, and a Marine Corps with just 12,000 men available for deployment.
This is historical fact. In June 1950, when the Korean War broke out, the United States faced precisely this situation. Of the 14 divisions of the U.S. Army, only the single division in Europe was up to full strength. The others, including the four divisions in Japan that were sent to Korea, had infantry regiments with two rather than the usual three battalions and artillery battalions with two rather than three batteries, for a total of 70 percent of authorized strength.
The Japan-based divisions lacked 62 percent of their infantry firepower along with 14 percent of their tanks, and much of this equipment was outmoded. Indeed, just 45 days’ supply of ammunition was available to these forces. The Navy had the above number of ships in the Western Pacific, while five years before, it had deployed 1,300 in support of the Okinawa invasion. Only two Marine divisions remained from six at the end of World War II, both woefully understrength, with only the Air Force able to provide sufficient units. Worse, the Army had been “civilianized,” meaning that discipline had been greatly relaxed and combat training cut back heavily, in order to make military service more attractive.
The result, not surprisingly, was that the first Americans to see combat in Korea suffered heavy losses and were driven back, in some cases more than 50 miles. Many American soldiers, who had no preparation for combat, broke under fire, or surrendered, or drifted south or east trying to reach the safety of the coast. Only the establishment of a perimeter around the port of Pusan prevented the fall of South Korea in the summer of 1950, and it was a close call indeed.
So what do these events, more than 60 years ago, have to do with the situation faced by today’s U.S. military? More than we would like to think.
Of course, the quality of our personnel is excellent, and there are tens of thousands, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps, with recent experience of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of our weaponry remains first-rate, and a match for any foe.
The trouble is, will we be able to maintain sufficient military strength to confront a growing number of adversaries in an increasingly unstable world, where large-scale war is increasingly becoming a distinct possibility?
To begin with, there are the cuts that the Obama Administration has made to the defense budget–some $487 billion. Personnel strength will be reduced considerably. The Army’s active personnel level will bottom out at 490,000, down from its current 570,000. This number is well below the 520,000 level that Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has publicly endorsed. T
he Marine Corps will be reduced from 202,000 to 182,000, meaning that there will be fewer Marines than in 1980, when an understrength Corps had to contend with an important new task of rapid deployment to defend the Persian Gulf. Worse still, while personnel reductions are just eight percent of Marine strength, accomplishing this will mean a 13 percent reduction in combat troops–11 percent in infantry, 20 percent in armor and 20 percent in artillery, with the total number of infantry battalions–the backbone of the Marine ground combat forces–falling to 24 from 27. Moreover, whereas Marine sergeants had to be promoted before their 13th year of service, this has fallen to just 10 years, meaning that hundreds of experienced NCOs will be forced to retire in the next few years.
The Navy is also hard-hit. Its current strength is just 286 ships. Whereas in 2005 a 313-ship force was set as a goal, this has fallen to just 306. Naval shipbuilding will fall in Fiscal Year 2014 to just seven ships, down from 10 this fiscal year, and will not rise until FY 2018, with 11 ships planned. In some important categories, the fall has been dramatic.
In 2005, there were 33 amphibious warfare ships in the fleet. By 2012, there were just 28. In September 2012, one of the three Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons (MPS)–which carry enough supplies for a full-strength U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade for a month–stationed in the Mediterranean, was deactivated. This will make it much more difficult for U.S. forces, in this case in the Middle East, to respond effectively to crises. The carrier force will fall to 10 ships, rather than the current 11, while just one carrier, rather than the usual two, will be deployed to the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf. Maintenance difficulties, especially with the carriers Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln, will seriously affect the readiness of naval forces.
The Air Force is in even worse shape. At least $54 billion will be cut from its budget. According to the Heritage Foundation, the number of fighters has fallen by some 25 percent since 2001. Along with the withdrawal of 52 F-117 stealth fighters, some 263 F-15s and 372 F-16s have also been retired.
An even more serious problem affects all the services. Much of this equipment is aging, having come into service in the 1990s or even earlier. The Air Force’s F-15 fighters, for example, are, on average, 30 years old, while its B-1 and B-2 bombers entered service some 25 years ago. The same is true of the Army’s M-1 Abrams tanks and M-2/M-3 Bradley fighting vehicles. The design of the AAV-7 amphibious landing vehicle that is standard in the Marine Corps is now over 40 years old. Much of this equipment is now being worn out, thanks to arduous combat duty and exacting peacetime training.
This situation calls for an investment in procurement like that undertaken during the 1980s, when aging weaponry was replaced in large quantities by many of the above weapon systems. However, this is not the case. Thanks to the cuts in defense, delays in development and procurement of such items as the F-35 Lightning II and the KC-46A tanker will see this process pushed back–and carried out on a much more limited scale–to the 2020s. New attack submarine and cruiser programs have been shelved or cancelled, as has the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, meant to replace the Marines’ AAV-7s, while a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle, development of which was initiated in 2011, is unlikely to enter service until 2024.
So what is all this likely to mean for the future? Military forces must be tailored in relation to the situations they are likely to be used in, and the threats they will face. At present, the Syrian civil war, with the recent use of chemical weapons, is a flash point. More broadly, Iran’s continued nuclear weapons development, together with the fallout from the “Arab Spring” has made more probable a major regional war in the Middle East.
North Korea’s withdrawal from the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War, and its growing bellicosity, have exacerbated tensions in East Asia, while the continued presence of an anti-American, pro-Iranian regime in Venezuela means that instability in the Caribbean Basin is likely. The procurement by states like Iran, Syria and Venezuela of advanced missiles, submarines, combat aircraft and mines (both locally developed and from Russia and China), as well as by proxies like Hezbollah, means that their military potential has been significantly enhanced over the past several years. Such regional conflicts as described above would provide a much greater challenge for the United States and its allies, especially if they were to occur in concert or in a proximate time (wars in the Middle East and Korea, for example), thanks to the close ties between these states.
Given the situation described above, there appears to be a converging line between declining U.S. military capabilities and the growing capabilities of our adversaries, one which could lead to a danger point in the not-too-distant future. We also must keep in mind China’s geopolitical ambitions and growing military potential–especially its naval and ballistic missile forces–as well as, in the longer term, a rearming Russia, whose interests could conflict with those of the West.
All of which brings us back to where we began. Someday soon, we will face an enemy as ruthless and capable as North Korea in 1950–perhaps even North Korea again. Our troops–far superior in training and experience than those sent to Korea to be sure–will be thrust into battle unexpectedly. However, there may not be enough of them to ensure victory, and their weapons may not be available in the quantity and quality needed to overcome their foes. South Korea was successfully defended, but only at a heavy cost, and it was a near run thing. Unless we examine our national priorities and ensure that we maintain the necessary military strength to overcome all enemies, we may not be as lucky again.
David Walsh is a freelance journalist and contributor to Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of The Military Balance in the Cold War: US Perceptions and Policy, 1976-85 (Routledge, 2008).