War Notes for the Leaders in Pyongyang

In recent weeks, as the heavy global workload and overcommitment of the U.S. armed forces has become apparent, some have asked if the United States could handle a major crisis or a war in Korea these days.

Of course, the carnage to all involved would be tremendous, even without factoring in the devastation from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles. If leaders in Pyongyang thought that the U.S. could not respond to provocations in Northeast Asia, they might be more tempted to act irresponsibly and aggressively. That, however, would be a major mistake.

In fact, while its military is overworked at present, the U.S. could respond to an emergency in Northeast Asia. And it would do so with overwhelming power and the ability to win quickly.

First, there is no shortage of key capabilities such as precision munitions in the American inventory. The U.S. has been building them up quickly since Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Afghanistan. It may have used 6,000 to 8,000 satellite-guided JDAM munitions in Iraq, for example, but it has been building many hundreds a month for 20 months. Its exact inventory is classified, but probably totals at least 5,000 JDAM weapons today.

Second, the air force and navy are in good shape, and getting better all the time. Since April, when Baghdad fell, they have started their healing process after a dozen tough years of frequent deployments. With Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gone, they no longer need to maintain no-fly zones over Iraq. Their presence in the Persian Gulf today is modest and diminishing further. The vast majority of their assets would be available in Korea if need be.

For the well being of American airmen, airwomen and sailors, it would of course be better not to have to send them to Korea anytime soon. That said, they could go if needed. This is true for tactical fighters, aircraft carriers, submarines, bombers, refueling and lift planes, and many other types of units.

What about the ground forces? Sixteen of the U.S. Army’s 33 active-duty combat brigades are in Iraq; another two are in Afghanistan; two more are in Korea; one more is in the Balkans. That leaves only 12 available for other missions, and most of those are now preparing to go to Iraq.

Specifically, when the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions, 1st armored division, 2nd and 3rd armored cavalry regiments, and 173rd airborne brigade, together with the 101st airborne division, come home, they will be replaced by the 1st armored cavalry division, 1st infantry division, much of the 82nd airborne division, roughly two brigades of the Army National Guard, a new medium-weight “Stryker brigade” of the army, and more multinational forces. Allies will, it is hoped, also replace those elements of the 1st Marine Force still in Iraq.

This makes for a very difficult situation for the army. Almost all of its major active-duty combat units will be somewhere overseas in 2003 or 2004. By the end of next year, virtually every army combat unit will have recently spent up to a year abroad. Among other problems, that raises the question of who would deploy in 2005, assuming that the Iraq mission were still difficult and required large American forces. (It would help immensely if allies like Japan could provide more main combat forces.)

So there is a long-term challenge. Sending people back to Iraq who have already been there could break the morale of the U.S. military, convincing many of our fine volunteers to leave the service. But there is no acute short-term emergency. In other words, if we have to respond elsewhere in the next year or so, we will be able to do it.

As noted, navy and air force units are clearly available in substantial numbers, as are marines. Moreover, at a time of major national emergency, the army units now in Iraq might for example stay right where they are, and those currently planned for deployment to Iraq could be directed to North Korea instead. Since war plans envision no more than five to six U.S. ground combat divisions in any future Korean war, available forces would be adequate.

Such a contingency would constitute a major national crisis for the U.S. in many ways, and a terrible tragedy for the Korean people. Over time, the U.S. military would have to find a way to repair a dispirited force that would certainly suffer many more casualties than it has in Iraq, and that would come home exhausted.

But this fact would be no solace for North Korea’s current regime. It would be overthrown, and overthrown decisively, should it provoke a war. Conflict in Korea is not an option the U.S. or its regional allies would ever consider lightly, even under President George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemption. But it is one they could certainly carry out if required.