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On Point

Can the U.S. Handle both Korea and Iraq?

by Austin Bay
December 31, 2002

While North Korea's nuclear shakedown shenanigans indicate economic blackmail is Pyongyang's immediate aim (rather than war with the United States and South Korea), the threat presented by Kim Jong-Il's decaying regime isn't hypothetical. The troops Kim's impoverished nation could send south are no mirage. He has just enough military muscle to make his nuclear hustle a real strategic test for Washington.

Secretary of State Colin Powell argues that the situation isn't a military crisis. With the United States necessarily focused on Iraq, Powell's tact isn't merely good diplomacy, it's good generalship.

On the Korean peninsula, students of strategy are witnessing a classic example of diplomacy as "economy of force." Politics is being used to check Pyongyang because U.S. conventional military power is, at the moment, otherwise engaged.

U.S. forces are committed in Korea, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Units are being prepared for action in Iraq. Forces are also committed to homeland security. That's five fronts.

Can the world's hyperpower handle them all? That's a provocative question. The deep manpower and force structure cuts of the mid-1990s, the cuts that took the Army from 16 divisions in 1991 to 10, means U.S. forces are now spread thin. The cost savings from "reinventing government" touted by the Clinton administration came, in large measure, from defense. Those cuts now exact a strategic price and, in an odd way, increase the possibility of a nuclear war.

Here's why. When the Cold War ended, the new age of little wars struck with a vengeance. Washington added military commitments, acting as if force structure were increasing instead of diminishing. With Bosnia and a score of other contingencies occurring in the midst of military downsizing, the Clinton administration began robbing Peter to police Paul. Neither the Clinton administration nor the Republican Congress squarely faced the need to either curtail commitments as defense outlays shrank or increase defense spending.

"Defeat in Detail" -- a classic strategic concept -- occurs when a comparatively weaker combatant secures victory over a more powerful opponent through the piecemeal destruction of the stronger force. The little guy never lets the big guy bring all of his power to bear.

Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign against Union forces under Gens. Fremont and Banks was a classic example of a smaller army thrashing a larger one via defeat-in-detail.

North Korea and Iraq are not in a position to inflict a genuine military "defeat in detail" on the United States. The United States, however, needs to be wary. Despite Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's recent assertion, the United States lacks the conventional forces to simultaneously win two regional wars, or at least it lacks the conventional forces to win them quickly and overwhelmingly. The United States can "win one war" and "hold the other," then shift forces to "win the hold" (the "win-hold-win" scenario).

With capabilities stretched, Powell employs diplomacy to "hold" North Korea as the United States prepares to win in Iraq.

Which is precisely what needs to happen. The United States must concentrate its efforts on Saddam's regime and not get derailed by North Korean agitation.

If diplomacy fails and North Korea prepares to attack South Korea and Japan? Don't discount pre-emptive action by the United States and China, to include the possible use of small-yield nuclear weapons on North Korean military targets.

America's precision munitions compensate to a degree for fewer ground units and air wings, no question about that.

If Kim's hustle turns to combat, so do America's nuclear weapons.

A sobering statement? Then let's revisit those 1990s force cuts. Maybe we need to add ground divisions. The War on Terror demonstrates the need for American "staying power" in a region, and staying power -- when it comes to making the long term changes really winning the terror war entails -- usually translates into well-trained troops on the ground.

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