Korean War Echoes in Today’s Challenges
It rained heavily along the 38th Parallel the night of June 25, 1950. That did not trouble the battle-hardened legions of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung that attacked all along the frontier. Kim’s army fielded eight fully manned and well-equipped infantry divisions supported by a tank brigade of more than 100 T-34 tanks.
Five of those divisions were formed around a core of veterans of the Chinese Communist forces that had defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army the previous year. They were well-equipped with robust combat support down to battalion level. The North Koreans had a modest but balanced air force with approximately 40 fighters and 70 ground attack aircraft.
Ironically, the forces of the Republic of Korea were lightly equipped because U.S. policymakers were concerned they might attempt a forceful reunification of Korea. The ROK Army also had eight divisions, but each was half the size of one of Kim’s and possessed far less capable combat support. The ROK had no combat aircraft. Both Koreas had small coastal navies. U.S. combat forces had withdrawn from the peninsula in 1949, leaving behind only a small advisory group.
Much to Learn
The Army has much to learn from its immediate post-World War II history and its setback in the summer of 1950. Among the possible lessons, the first is that U.S. strategic policy is subject both to evolutionary adaptation and dramatic immediate change based on events in the broader world and shifts in domestic preferences. The second is that the Army is responsible for readiness, not the commander in chief or Congress.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. Army retained more structure than it could staff. It demonstrated then and since a propensity to sacrifice “enablers”—in particular, service support and combat support units—to save combat formations, often without regard as to whether it could staff them. Hollowing out the force to retain what is seen as fighting structure has characterized downsizing ever since.
Then-Chief of Staff Gen. Edward C. Meyer famously described the post-Vietnam War result as “hollow.” The tendency to sacrifice tail in favor of tooth is a long-standing and mistaken solution, particularly as it affects forces required to “set” theaters; that is, to create the necessary infrastructure to sustain operations.
Regions of Instability
Arguably, the strategic environment in 1950 was as ambiguous as that existing today, and perhaps more dangerous because of new strategic weapons of great destructive power, and unanticipated and ill-understood threats in a rapidly changing global system. At the end of World War II, the U.S. had defeated its enemies, was pre-eminent economically, and alone had fielded and used nuclear weapons.
But World War II also left the ill-disposed Soviet Union as a powerful military rival on the European continent and indeed, in the world. Interwar U.S.-USSR comity rapidly changed from mutual tolerance to a precarious Cold War. Moreover, the recent war had accelerated the collapse of European imperialism. This collapse guaranteed existence of great regions of instability that rapidly became a field of great power competition.
In February 1946, George F. Kennan, chargé d’affaires in Moscow, warned that postwar Soviet hostility was structural and would be enduring. In response, he proposed a policy of sustained containment. A little over a year later, in March 1947, President Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine of opposing communist expansion. In June 1948, the Soviet Union began the Berlin Blockade, raising risk of war in Europe for which no one in the West was prepared. In July, Truman declared the intent to assist in the defense of Greece and Turkey.
The Soviet Union tested its first A-bomb in August 1949. Two months later, Mao Zedong declared victory in China, significantly changing the regional and global balance of power. At then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s direction, Paul Nitze, who in 1950 had replaced Kennan as director of the Policy Planning Staff, began planning to militarize Kennan’s largely political and economic containment policy.
That approach, eventually articulated in National Security Council Report 68—signed after the start of the Korean War—defined a global perimeter the U.S. proposed to defend. In January 1950, Acheson described publicly the “defensive perimeter” in Asia. Notably, he did not include Korea.
Bellicose Defense Posture
While the administration altered its strategic ends, the president and the security bureaucracy failed to adjust the means to match. Further, their actions remained confused by undue faith in the efficacy of nuclear weapons as a general deterrent force. Truman, facing a volatile postwar economic adjustment as well as a Republican Congress from 1947 to 1949 that was opposed to many New Deal policies, continued to focus on the domestic economy despite a more bellicose defense posture.
To garner savings, the president employed a procedure he called the “remainder method.” It involved estimating gross revenues for the year and subtracting from that number planned civil spending. The remainder, and no more, could be applied to defense. In fiscal year 1950, the remainder method required more than a 10 percent reduction between proposed defense spending and appropriations. This was a far steeper decline than the one Army leaders are complaining about now.
Then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson was not unmindful of the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. In his December 1949 semiannual report to the president, Johnson noted that the country had failed to retain the military power that was required to sustain the U.S. position and influence in international affairs.
Nevertheless, Johnson had already ordered the Army to reduce end strength to 677,000 by the end of the year rather than grow to the 900,000 authorized. By January 1950, the Army had drawn down to less than 600,000.
In the name of trimming fat to save muscle, Johnson and Secretary of the Army Frank Pace increased the number of combat formations. The Army achieved the end-strength goal Johnson set and met budget limits required. It reduced end strength and expenditures while increasing the number of combat formations (muscle) by deferring acquisition, cutting the mobilization base, and reducing assigned unit end strength.
Finally, budget constraints required cutting money for institutional and field training, two of the principal pillars of readiness. The Army also deactivated two of six training divisions, capped reserve formations at 90 percent, and dramatically reduced the strength of the 10 active component divisions—significantly cutting muscle as well as fat.
In America’s First Battles 1776–1965, then-Col. Roy Flint described how this approach played out in units assigned to Eighth U.S. Army in Japan. In June 1950, Eighth Army had four infantry divisions. But two months earlier, it also had two corps. They had been eliminated to meet end strength and budget limits.
To reach the number of planned combat formations, each division was staffed below organizational end strength. For example, the divisions had wartime authorizations of 18,900 and peacetime authorizations of 12,500, or two-thirds of their actual table of organization.
Of the four divisions, only the 25th was at full strength with 13,000 assigned. The 1st Cavalry Division had just over 11,000 troops. The 7th and 24th each had fewer than 11,000. Combat, combat support and service support units were all short-staffed and ill-equipped. The medium tank battalion in the divisions had M24 light tanks rather than the authorized M26 medium tanks.
Although there were variations among divisions, each resorted to staffing two-thirds of its infantry regiments and roughly the same percentage in other units. Finally, Eighth Army lacked anti-tank ammunition and adequate anti-tank weapons.
Walker Emphasizes Readiness
Shortages were not problematic until 1949 because Eighth Army focused on occupation duty. The Eighth Army commander, Lt. Gen. Walton H. “Johnny” Walker, ended the easygoing colonial period of life in Eighth Army when he arrived that summer. He instituted training focused on combat readiness rather than occupation. By January 1950, Walker’s units had reached company-level training; they embarked on battalion training in the new year. Walker’s program suffered from insufficient resources but hurt more from the lack of training areas in densely populated Japan.
Walker’s efforts, though laudable, were insufficient to make up for all the challenges. The Marine Corps’ official history of the conflict, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea 1950–1953, described the condition of the U.S. Army in Korea accurately, if not kindly, as “an unprepared and ill-equipped little army of occupation.” Within days of the North Korean invasion, Truman determined that that little Army of occupation would fight. He quickly committed U.S. forces to defend Korea as part of a U.N. intervention.
Walker deployed Maj. Gen. William F. Dean and the 24th Infantry Division first. Dean ordered the “Gimlets” of the 21st Infantry Regiment to provide lead task force. The division would follow when it could.
406 Soldiers Deployed
Lt. Col. Charles B. “Brad” Smith, a World War II combat veteran in command of the 1st Battalion, built the task force around his two remaining rifle companies. The task force that deployed to Korea on July 1 had 406 soldiers. Their supporting weapons included two 75 mm recoilless rifles and a handful of mortars and 2.36-inch rocket launchers. To fill this meager force, the 21st Infantry Regiment had to provide officer fillers to the 1st Battalion. Smith made up shortages in the two rifle companies internally. To plump up the 24th Infantry Division, Eighth Army transferred more than 2,000 soldiers from its other units.
On arrival in Korea, Task Force Smith moved on foot, by railcars and on trucks north toward Osan. On July 4, Lt. Col. Miller O. Perry, commanding the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion, arrived with part of his battalion to provide fire support. Perry brought Battery A with six 105 mm howitzers and some of his support troops. The artillery traveled by sea from Japan to Pusan on July 2. From there, they moved north by rail and convoy with 1,200 rounds of ammunition, including six high-explosive anti-tank rounds.
Smith and Perry moved into a blocking position north of Osan at about 3 a.m. on July 5. Smith had chosen a good position and placed his weapons to best advantage. But in short order, the Americans learned that high-explosive artillery rounds, 75 mm recoilless rounds and 2.36-inch rockets were not enough to defeat infantry supported by T-34 tanks. The lead enemy force penetrated the roadblock shortly after 10 a.m. By 2:30 p.m., Task Force Smith had fled south.
Half of Force Lost
Smith’s troops destroyed or immobilized four tanks, and killed or wounded about 100 North Korean troops. In return, they lost nearly all their equipment and about half their force. Subsequently, Kim’s legions drove the unprepared and ill-equipped little Army all the way south to Pusan, where it hung on by its fingertips. Yet six months later, Eighth Army, with its corps reconstituted, stood for a brief moment on the banks of the Yalu.
Eighth Army could achieve this revival because the Selective Service System rapidly fed the Army large numbers of draftees. More importantly, the country mobilized National Guard and Reserve units, and recalled “retread” combat veterans to the colors. The Army in the U.S., Japan and Korea could process units and provide equipment because in spite of reductions, it still had considerable infrastructure and materiel left over from World War II in the U.S., abandoned on Pacific islands, and in Japan.
The current chief of staff and senior Army leaders may find solace in recalling they are not the first to find that ends, ways and means are not in concert and rarely have been. Perhaps they should weigh carefully the risks of retaining unit flags at the expense of readiness and acquisition.
In April, the Government Accountability Office published Army Planning: Comprehensive Risk Assessment Needed for Planned Changes to the Army’s Force Structure. According to the GAO, the Army has “prioritized retaining combat units, such as brigade combat teams (BCT) and combat aviation brigades” at the expense of “support (or ‘enabler’) units.” Further, the GAO concluded the supporting analysis of risk “overstated the availability of the Army’s enabler units” and “did not identify enabler unit shortfalls, or the risk those shortfalls pose to meeting mission requirements.”
Take GAO’s Advice
It is not surprising that the Army sees logistics units and theater support as fat that must be turned into the muscle of infantry and armor brigades, or accepts risks based on those choices. But the Army should take the advice the GAO offered and examine carefully the time and expense required to raise and train heavy combat forces and low-density logistics units, and evaluate the operational and strategic effects of their absence at the outset of major operations.
Whatever the Army’s senior leaders decide, they will need to narrow the aperture of what they can prepare the Army to do, and then share their insights unambiguously with their political masters. Maintaining poorly trained, inadequately supported and undermanned combat units is a false economy. There are no easy ways to prevent a future Task Force Smith.