What got the Roman Empire is about to get us

By Col. David Hackworth (Ret.)
web posted July 5, 1999

North Korea, our most irrational, unpredictable and dangerous enemy - with whom we've been in an on-again, off-again shootout for 54 years - is back on the warpath. If the million-man North Korean army attacks, our 37 000 soldiers in South Korea will be little more than a speed bump without immediate U.S. air, naval and ground reinforcements. They'll be squashed like a beer can flattened by an Abrams tank - just as our troops were in the summer of 1950, the last time this Red horde roared south. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein continues his war games in the Gulf, designed to destabilize that region. Last week, not far from our vital Saudi and Kuwaiti gas stations, U.S. fighter aircraft continued to pound Iraqi targets in the North and South No-Fly zones.

Containing both South Korea and Iraq is critical to our national security. But because of the "Crisis in Kosovo," the required combat power was unwisely pulled from these two hot spots.

The Pentagon claims it has got the right stuff to fight on two fronts at the same time. But don't buy into that con game. The fumbling air-and- naval campaign against a fourth-rate Serbian army proved our forces no longer have that capability. To prevail against the Serbs, the Pentagon had to strip combat assets - war toys and fighting boys - from other theaters around the globe, call up the reserves and dangerously deplete our arsenal of smart munitions.

Because of the diversion of forces to the Balkans, the Pacific Command didn't have a carrier battle group at the ready last week when North Korea invaded South Korea's waters. Now the U.S. Navy carrier Kitty Hawk, reinforced with other ships, is on its way to Korea at full steam to react to the first North Korean naval intrusion into southern waters since the Korean War. In the fight with Serbia, it took almost 60 days before the air campaign kicked into high gear. It took 30 days alone to move a small U.S. Army task force from Germany to Albania to support 24 Apache helicopters that never got into the fight because their readiness level was so deplorable. Now that NATO's Serbian peace treaty is a done deal, at least our considerable naval and air assets that have been tied up there can be shifted back to areas where we have pressing national security considerations.

But air and naval power alone won't hack it. It will take a combination of air, naval and ground troops to put down a North Korean and/or Iraqi attack. The way things are now, the Pentagon couldn't get to those threatened theaters "firstest with the mostest" with the minimum number of ground divisions that would be needed. The past six years of unprecedented nonvital deployments around the globe in such places as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and now Kosovo have worn our troops down and stretched our forces - both in material and morale - like a rubber band that's about to snap, triggering the most serious readiness crisis since the "hollow force" days right after the Vietnam War.

Peacekeeping duties in Kosovo will cost the equivalen of a U.S. Army division - perhaps for decades. Units of the 1st Infantry Division are deploying there now, having just recovered from an earlier sojourn in Bosnia. Peacekeeping missions destroy combat readiness. It's like using a finesword to smash boulders into pebbles. After a peacekeeping mission ends, it takes at least one year coupled with a lot of hard combat training to resharpen the blade. Over the last four years, Bosnian duty alone has degraded the combat effectiveness of three of the U.S. Army's 10 active duty divisions - 1st Armor, 1st Infantry and 1st Cavalry. Soon the 10th Mountain Division will be deployed there and it too will quickly lose its ability to do what it's designed to do - to close with and destroy the enemy. We must return our armed forces to their proper role of defending ournational interests and in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, let the Europeans occupy the Balkans. If our leaders don't soon get their priorities straight and stop mirroring the Roman Empire, our valiant warriors will again pay the grim price for not being ready when the war whistle blows.

One of most decorated soldiers in American history, Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) is the author of the syndicated column Defending America.

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