However, there are scenarios in which a relatively small U.S. advance force could get overwhelmed. For example, during the 1991 Gulf War, the Eighty-Second Airborne division was deployed to defend a thin defensive line across the open deserts of Saudi Arabia against a vast force of Iraqi armored units. Fortunately, the Iraqi tanks did not attack, but clearly the light infantry would have been hard pressed in such a scenario.
In 2016, analysts at the RAND Corporation projected that U.S. armored units forward deployed to eastern Europe would be overwhelmed in the event of a surprise invasion of the Baltics by Russia. However, such a scenario would depend on Russia concentrating many troops in the region without NATO noticing and mustering its own forces in reply; furthermore, it is generally unlikely.
Nonetheless, the experience of Task Force Smith emphasizes the terrible price paid by soldiers asked to fight unwinnable battles on short notice with inadequate equipment and too little training. Fortunately, despite the battle’s disastrous outcome, it was part of a series of desperate defensive actions that—just barely—prevented the conquest of all of South Korea until reinforcements could arrive.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared two years ago.