A bit more than 63 years ago, the U.S. Army suffered a small but psychologically and doctrinally defining battlefield defeat. In response to the unanticipated invasion of the Republic of South Korea by the regime in Pyongyang, the U.S. occupation command in Japan sent a battalion-size task force of the 24th Infantry Division under Lt. Col. Charles Smith to the peninsula. Inadequate defense budgets and five years of occupation duty had left the U.S. Army, in general, and the formation designated as Task Force Smith, in particular, woefully ill-prepared for combat. Task Force Smith lacked sufficient and appropriate anti-tank weapons and ammunition with which to take on massive combined arms force equipped with modern T-34 tanks. Despite a valiant effort to stem the North Korean tide, Task Force Smith was swiftly overrun and many of its members captured.
Like Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor and Kasserine Pass, Task Force Smith became the bumper sticker reference for a military ill-equipped and inadequately trained for war. More broadly, the fate of Task Force Smith was the consequence of a failure of U.S. intelligence and strategic planning. U.S. defense planners were focused almost exclusively on the threat posed by the massive Soviet conventional force in Eastern Europe and by Moscow’s test of its first nuclear weapon. In a pattern that would be repeated throughout the Cold War, the U.S. military found itself having to fight a war it wasn’t prepared for in a part of the world it hadn’t considered strategically significant.
The seeds for the next Task Force Smith debacle are being sown today. Sequester-driven defense budget cuts are forcing the U.S. military to drastically cut readiness, sustainment, modernization and force structure. In order to ensure that units deploying to Afghanistan are mission-capable, the U.S. Army is reducing the readiness of virtually all other combat brigades. Just yesterday, the Army’s Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno, reported that he had only two additional combat-ready brigades, although that number is expected to grow to seven by next summer. Parenthetically, seven brigades would not be sufficient to conduct major ground operations in either Southwest or Northeast Asia should war break out. General Odierno went on to warn that, “There is going to come a time when we simply don’t have enough money to provide what I believe to be the right amount of ground forces to conduct contingency operations.”
In the near-term, sequestration will force the Navy to delay or cancel as many as half its planned maintenance availabilities for surface combatants. The Air Force could be required to ground up to a third of its combat-coded tactical fighter wings for lack of flying hours, maintenance dollars and range time. Over the next two or three years, the combination of reduced defense budgets and military “entitlement” will suck the life blood out of the procurement accounts. The result will be a military that as a whole will be a Task Force Smith in waiting: undertrained and ill-equipped to fight.
Making the problem worse are a number of misguided or simply cockeyed studies and analyses that assert that the United States can get by with a military trained and equipped to Task Force Smith standards. Like climate change deniers use of recent statistics on “global cooling,” some of these reports and papers point to a short-term decline in the level of state-on-state violence to support their assertion that four millennia of history is no longer relevant and that the risk of future war has lessened. Others place their faith in so-called soft power tools, in effect ignoring the close relationship between U.S. military strength and the effectiveness of the other instruments of national power. Still others try to make the case that by becoming militarily weak the U.S. can avoid provoking threats from others. Absent a strong defense of national security by the Obama Administration generally, but particularly by the President, it is up to the military services to make the case.
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