Let us remember the Korean War.
Though often called “the forgotten war,” the terrible Korean War has not been forgotten for a minute by the men who fought it nor by the men and women who served behind the lines. What has been forgotten are the lessons that civilian and military leaders should have learned.
The Korean War was a tough, brutal conflict, with heavy casualties. Most significant, it signaled a basic change in the American concept of winning wars to accepting a stalemate.
The first lesson that should have been learned was not to get involved in a conventional land-based conflict in Asia. The second lesson was that air power applied in penny packets cannot by itself win a war. This, too, was forgotten in the Vietnam conflict, and now the reverse concept has become our strategy. Today our national defense posture is based on the belief that a small and aging force of bombers can win two wars fought almost simultaneously.
For those of us who remember the days when the Strategic Air Command had more than 3,500 aircraft, some 1,500 of them nuclear bombers, today’s numbers are laughable. The U.S. Air Force, which will bear the principal responsibility for winning any new war, has been reduced to 85 B-52s (average age: 38 years), 73 B-1s (average age: 12), 21 B-2s (average age: 5) and 56 F-117s (average age: 8). While peacetime serviceability rates are relatively high, it would not be surprising if less than half this force–perhaps only 100 airplanes–would be serviceable after a month of intense fighting.
A much larger force, supplemented by Navy and allied forces, did achieve the groundwork for victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Can anyone honestly believe that a much smaller and older force will be able to conduct two major regional conflicts simultaneously?
We have forgotten, once again, that allowing our active forces to decline too much simply invites aggression, and that having the wrong type of equipment is costly and inefficient. The numbers of our aircraft have fallen far below the safety level, and we are reluctant to replace our F-15s (average age: 14) with F-22s.
We are now almost pathetically dependent upon precision-guided munitions, whose efficacy in Bosnia has been called into question; upon a 25-year old stealth technology that cannot go “unobserved” forever; and upon a complex system of satellites that is vulnerable to nuclear weapons detonated in space.
But there are two even more ominous lessons that we’ve apparently forgotten, either one of which might have tragic consequences. In the fall of 1950, the People’s Republic of China warned the United States that if it continued its advance up the Korean Peninsula, China’s interests would be threatened and it would intervene–and it did so, on a massive scale. Only conventional air power prevented the United Nations forces from being pushed completely off the peninsula.
Now China is warning us in many forums that it has created an intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, and that it will use these missiles against U.S. targets “if necessary.” This is nuclear blackmail, pure and simple. Yet at the very same time, China has the effrontery to insist that we not create an anti-missile defense.
The last lesson that we did not learn was one that helps explain the dominance of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter in the early days of the Korean War. The Air Force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, had dedicated all of the brand new North American F-86s to a defensive role. Vandenberg, quite properly, based his assumptions on what he knew the Soviet Union could do: send flights of nuclear-armed Tupolev Tu-4 bombers on one-way missions to knock out U.S. cities while Soviet troops overran Europe.
We have foolishly departed from the philosophy of planning on what the enemy can do today, and instead rely on what we think (or perhaps on what we hope) it will do. Thus we are currently willing to permit China to threaten us with 20 to perhaps 60 ICBMs, on the basis that “they probably will not be used”–despite the fact that the Chinese military has stated unequivocally that they will be used if China is thwarted over Taiwan or any other national interest.
It is time to look back on the Korean experience, review the lessons that are there to be learned and then insist that our civilian and military leaders take these lessons to heart. The Cold War may be over, but the danger lurking in the East is not.
Walter J. Boyne