Don't Send U.S. Troops to Bail Out Allies That Won't Defend Themselves
On June 30, 1950, following the North Korean invasion of South Korea, an ad hoc U.S. Army unit was assembled in Japan, thrown on whatever aircraft was available and sent to delay North Korea’s army long enough for a more robust American force to Pusan. This well-led but poorly equipped and inadequately trained group of about 500 American soldiers, Task Force Smith, hastily occupied a hilly area near Osan, covering the North Korean’s approach and were pushed aside by columns of North Korean tanks and infantry. After multiple failures to destroy the enemy tanks with obsolete bazookas, and under effective enemy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire, the group withdrew in disarray. They suffered sixty dead, twenty-one wounded and eighty-two captured, several of whom were executed. This vignette of the Battle of Osan has been used for decades by the U.S. Army to remind its leaders of their obligation to never send unprepared troops into combat.
Speedbumps are meant to be run over without completely stopping, and it is as true on asphalt as it is in warfare. The mission to delay is contained under the framework of retrograde operations alongside withdrawal and retirement. All three are necessary to prepare for, however none should ever form the basis of an American security posture overseas, much less constitute the first operation of any planned use of American forces. However, the National Commission on the Future of the Army, along with a large body of contemporary analysts are proposing just that.
The peerless quality of our armed services is a testament to our military’s capacity to learn. It is unlikely that a contemporary American fighting force could be pushed aside and rendered insignificant as that fateful battle in 1950. As a nation, we have devoted ourselves to not repeat the mistakes of Task Force Smith. Americans will never be forced to withdraw from the battlefield because of the ineffectiveness of their tactical leadership, training or equipment.
Should American troops withdraw from the field of battle, it will be because the allies on their flanks have collapsed and host nation troops are either ineffective or insufficient, or they run when they see tanks. It is remarkable in reading Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s memories of the battle that the South Korean Army is rarely mentioned, and never in the context of being part of the fighting. The fact that Lieutenant Colonel Smith and today’s analysts pay such little notice to the wartime activities of our allies is unsettling. It implies dangerous levels of arrogance that justify unilateral American military action to defend the sovereignty of nations that may be too ambivalent to protect themselves.
In the event America is drawn into conflict in defense of irresolute allies to deter or delay the attack of a common adversary, will a future Lieutenant Colonel Smith have incomplete memories of the Lithuanian or Philippine Armed forces’ combat? If we do nothing to motivate our partners to invest appropriately in readiness, then despite our own efforts we will see another Task Force Smith.
To a large degree, the weakness of America’s partners is in correlation to our arrogance. For the sake of our own security, we must reverse counterproductive approaches and force partners to a level of strength commensurate to their economies. Security dependencies developed during the Cold War continued unabated during the era of America’s “peace dividend”. Since America largely managed Europe’s Balkan crisis, kept NATO together and has led almost every Alliance security initiative, it is reasonable to assume that despite the robustness of their economies, many of U.S. partners elect to spend their tax revenue almost exclusively on unilateral, domestic social programs. Why not? American taxpayers and their elected representatives continue to demonstrate an extraordinary tolerance for subsidizing foreign territorial defense with our hard earned money and in the generations of citizen-soldiers sent forward to secure foreign borders.
Partners who don’t enjoy the economic largesse to realistically improve their militaries (such as the Philippines) must be encouraged to practice the kind of diplomacy that mitigates escalation and to refrain from the tactical level aggression that can trigger larger conflicts. Refreshing the conditions of decades old alliances may provide such an opportunity.