North Korea: Avoid a Needless War
By Dr. Earl Tilford
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” —Sun Tzu
The recent bogus Hawaiian nuclear alert puts the smoldering crisis with North Korea in perspective. Although most experts believe it will be a year before North Korea’s ICBM capability fully matures, the threat has reached a point of criticality. Instead of dithering over the extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, Congress needs to pass a budget that increases defense allocations to include more than doubling the 44 missile interceptors currently stationed in Alaska and southern California.
Kim Jong-un is provocative, annoying, and potentially dangerous because North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and he states his intent to use them on the United States. For a number of reasons, President Donald Trump’s administration should focus on making that capability a veritable “doomsday scenario” for Kim — one that grants him a relatively high degree of security against any American attempt to remove him from power but also makes clear any attack on the United States or its allies means oblivion for him and North Korea. If Kim understands that, the United States will have subdued North Korea without risking a limited attack that could provoke a potentially costly and needless war.
If North Korea launches a missile on a trajectory toward the United States, Guam, or one of our Asian allies, that missile must be destroyed. If it continues on to impact, whether it detonates and obliterates its target or fizzles, North Korea must be hit with an overwhelming counterstrike. This must be made clear to Kim before that happens. This is not the brainchild of what the American and international Left might dub “Trump’s dementia.” President John F. Kennedy threatened to do exactly that after the Soviet Union, which was far more powerful in 1962 than North Korea is today, placed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Credibility is the essence of deterrence.
Kim Jong-un needs to understand that the United States will annihilate North Korea if necessary. What Washington must avoid, however, is provoking a conventional conflict that could devastate South Korea, cause thousands of American casualties, and further deplete a U.S. military diminished through years of fighting terrorists and weakened by congressionally imposed spending constraints. Indeed, our military readiness has degraded significantly since 2001.
The Air Force and Navy would have to bear the brunt of a war in Korea. Overall, the operational readiness (OR) of the U.S. Air Force’s combat aircraft is down from 83% a decade ago to 72% today. Older, less capable aircraft actually have a higher operational capability than modern, fifth generation planes due to the latter’s higher reliance on computers and the physical challenges associated with maintaining composite skins on F-22s, F-35s, and B-2 bombers. For instance, the OR rate for F-22s is 67%. Only about 120 of a supposed 180 F-22s are rated as combat ready. Upgrades to F-16s, F-15s, and F-18s to make them more combat capable also require greater maintenance. Only 47% of the B-1B bomber force is combat ready. The primary culprit here has been budget constraints curtailing maintenance and reducing training.
Additionally, a war against North Korea will involve lots of firepower and substantial ground forces. American armed forces, particularly the Army, are adept at special operations. Conventional war, however, requires forces structured and prepared for sustained combat. This will demand a significant commitment of Reserve components by a Congress significantly split on politically ideological matters — a Congress unlikely to support a war absent overt North Korean aggression.
Strategically, American forces remain bogged down in the Middle East with the global war on ISIS and affiliated groups now raging in Syria and spreading into Africa. Russians are in Syria supporting an Assad regime also backed by Iran. If the United States makes a significant commitment to a war in Korea, then Iran, under a Russian aerial umbrella, could attack Israel. Hezbollah attacking from Lebanon, Hamas out of Gaza, and Iranian Republican Guard forces already in Syria striking at Golan would pose a significant threat to Israel. The presence of American and Russian forces in Syria complicates the situation and increases its volatility. Absent Washington’s support, a desperate Israel might use its nuclear forces provoking a global catastrophe.
Finally, the American body politic is sharply divided. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) would use an unpopular war as a way to end the Trump presidency. For now, such a war is unnecessary because the Trump administration possesses more economic and international political clout than the American Left and the media will — or can — admit.
Military force must be the last resort, but if it becomes necessary, it must be used overwhelmingly to reach a decisive and rapid conclusion.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.