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Two Wars and the 38th Parallel

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Obama administration’s new strategic guidance for the Defense Department guarantees more risk on the Korean peninsula.

The Obama administration’s newly released strategic guidance for the Defense Department emphasizes the importance of defending U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. It’s ironic that elements of the strategy suggest the United States will welcome more risk on the Korean peninsula.

With the administration’s focus on dealing with the growing challenge from China, the ongoing necessity of countering militants and preserving stability in the Middle East, and the requirement to cut defense spending, the new strategy offers up changes to U.S. forces that threaten to weaken deterrence on the peninsula and lessen our ability to handle a potential conflict there in an effective, decisive fashion.

A key tool of allied deterrence has been bilateral military exercises. Although the strategy document admits that “these activities reinforce deterrence” and enhance the capabilities of the partner military, it also asserts that “with reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations.” Will the United States continue to participate in the annual Foal Eagle exercises, which involve thousands of troops in ground, air, and sea maneuvers? Next time North Korea carries out a provocation, will the United States, as it has in the past, find it can afford to send a carrier strike group and F-22 fighters to exercise in the region as a show of force? These had not been open questions; now they are.

The new strategy offers up changes to U.S. forces that threaten to weaken deterrence on the peninsula and lessen our ability to handle a potential conflict there in an effective, decisive fashion.

Also deeply concerning, the strategy document jettisons the “two major regional contingencies” construct—the idea that the United States would maintain a capability to fight two simultaneous wars. The Obama administration’s recent talk of an Asian “pivot” has been somewhat blunted in the document, which states that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in … partner nations in and around” the Middle East. And despite its eagerness to extricate itself from conflicts in the Muslim world, the administration involved itself last spring in a new war in Libya, while conflict with Iran is an ever-present possibility. In the event of a serious intra-Korean conflict, what will happen if the peninsula isn’t host to the only U.S.-relevant war in the offing?

What’s more, it is now less clear what the American contribution would amount to should the Korean peninsula be the site of the only major regional contingency relevant to American interests. The primary deterrent to North Korean aggression for the past five-plus decades has been the presence of U.S. troops south of the 38th parallel. But even if those 28,500 troops are supplemented as the United States rebalances its forces towards Asia, there is now a real question about the nature of the follow-on force that would deploy to the peninsula in the event of a war. The new strategic guidance strongly suggests that the joint force will be tailored specifically to deal with anti-access/area-denial threats—asymmetric capabilities designed to counter U.S. power projection forces. Yet, other than enhanced missile defenses, the strategy does not specifically call for any capabilities that are of particular relevance to a peninsular conflict, such as F-35 joint strike fighters, next-generation counter-battery/artillery defense capabilities, or a renewed capacity for Marine Corps amphibious landings.

Instead, defense budget cuts are putting investment in such capabilities at risk. For example, if Congress does not repeal the mandatory $500 billion in sequestration defense cuts, the United States would lose the ability “to conduct an opposed amphibious landing with two Marine Expeditionary Brigades,” according to a recent assessment of the impact of defense cuts.

Next time North Korea carries out a provocation, will the United States, as it has in the past, find it can afford to send a carrier battle group and F-22 fighters to exercise in the region as a show of force?

But of even greater concern is the strategy’s declaration that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” A renewed Korean War would result in precisely such a contingency. While South Korea’s 522,000-man army would be expected to bear the brunt of ground operations (and, as a result, should be enlarged), it will need significant support from U.S. ground forces to defeat and disarm a North Korean military that, if reserves are called up, will number in the several millions; active-duty personnel alone amount to 1.2 million men. The strategic guidance asserts that the U.S. military will be able to conduct operations “for an extended period with mobilized forces,” but likely cuts in defense spending hold out the prospect that America’s reserve forces will not be trained and equipped to a level that ensures they will be ready to fill the boots of the tens of thousands of experienced, active-duty forces now being culled from the Army and Marine Corps.

Given China’s impressive military modernization, turmoil in the Middle East, and the still-active terrorist groups looking to strike America, it is perhaps easy to overlook the security needs on the Korean peninsula. But to do so is to accept much greater risk along the 38th parallel, a geopolitical fault line along which tectonic shifts in power are certain to have far-reaching implications. As U.S. defense planners begin fleshing out the new strategy, they must ask themselves whether it will allow for ongoing, effective deterrence or instead raise the chances of  conflict—and, if so, whether they are inadvertently making a successful conclusion to a possible conflict even more difficult to attain.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also writes “The Top Five Ways Things Could Go Wrong in the Hermit Kingdom,” “Don’t Ditch Taiwan,” “When Force Works,” “Return of the Missile Gap,” “How the U.S. can Capitalize on Kim Jong Il's Death,” and “Why the Six Party Talks Won't Bring Peace to the Korean Peninsula.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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