On 30 June 1950, an understrength and under-equipped battalion of 430 infantrymen, along with a 134-man artillery detachment – together known as Task Force Smith – left their cozy garrisons in occupied Japan to reinforce the line in Osan, Korea. The occupation forces sent to oppose the North Korean blitz were not the same battle hardened soldiers that had driven through Europe and across the Pacific 5 years earlier. Their training in combined arms action had been perfunctory. They faced over 30 tanks and 5000 DPRK regulars – two full infantry regiments. When the North Koreans hit them – hard – they fought as well as any men might under such circumstances before they were nearly enveloped. After three and a half hours of sustained combat, low on ammunition and with their communications cut-off, they were forced to withdraw. One isolated platoon was even forced to leave behind its equipment, their dead and even some of their more seriously wounded comrades. With characteristic magnanimity, the victorious North Korean soldiers bound the survivors hands behind their backs and shot each of them once with a bullet to the back of the head.
This wasn’t the war that they had trained for.
In the early morning hours of 20 March 2003, a US-led coalition of a little over 200,000 faced an entrenched and fortified foe of nearly 400,000 Iraqi soldiers and paramilitaries. Lacking the traditional 3:1 advantage required for offensive operations, they nevertheless shattered the Iraqi army and destroyed the Ba’athist government in three weeks.
This was exactly the war that they had trained for.
Nearly 8 years on, some are beginning to question whether those same forces – trained intensively over the intervening period on counter-insurgency operations – is ready for whatever may come next:
“There’s a belief that the president of the United States can pick up the red phone and order forcible entry operations” like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said Army Maj. Gen. Dan Bolger, who commands the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. “But that takes practice, and we don’t get a lot of practice.”
Since 2003, the Army and Marines have focused almost exclusively on learning and conducting counterinsurgency operations, which rely heavily on language and cultural knowledge and the ability to work with local police and tribal elders. But commanders have increasingly fretted that their troops have lost skills that the military used to practice all the time: fast-paced “kick-in-the-door” attacks across a border, with armor columns, intelligence and logistics support coordinated with artillery and air strikes.
With the drawdown of troops in Iraq, the Pentagon finally is able to begin rebuilding its strategic reserve, the battalions and brigades and equipment normally kept on standby for sudden crises. But the continuing demands in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon is sending 25,000 fresh troops in the coming months, leaves virtually no time for anything but Afghanistan-focused training.
Moreover, the two wars have seriously depleted stockpiles of combat-ready vehicles, weapons, communications equipment and other gear. So, even if troops had time to practice big-war operations, they don’t have the stuff to do it with.
Things may be looking up, however: In 2012, the Marine Corps plans to practice a major, combined arms amphibious assault using real Marines and actual ships.