- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made news last week when he appeared to throw down a gauntlet to a newly belligerent North Korea: Even if the United States military is busy in Iraq, he suggested, if push comes to shove, it could defeat Pyongyang at the same time.

"We're capable of winning decisively in one (war) and swiftly defeating in the case of the other. And let there be no doubt about it," Rumsfeld testily responded to a reporter's question whether a war with Iraq could embolden North Korea to take action against South Korea.

Rumsfeld's answer, in fact, was less a challenge to North Korea than a defense of U.S. military capabilities. His response reflected the heart of the national military sizing strategy, as reflected in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review: that the military be large enough to win one war while holding a second adversary at bay until it could be dealt with decisively.

But Rumsfeld's comment also started a massive spin cycle in Washington politics, with administration officials taking to the airwaves to emphasize that a military strike in North Korea is not being contemplated at the moment.

"I don't like the word crisis — it suggests we're about to move forces or there's a war about to break out, and that's not the case at all," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN Sunday. " … (It) is not yet a crisis that requires mobilization or for us to be threatening North Korea. Quite the contrary. We have been saying to North Korea that we have no plans to invade you. We have no hostile intent towards you."

"Everybody knows what our military capacity is. Secretary Rumsfeld made it clear earlier this week that we have the capacity to deal with any emergency or situation that might arise," Powell added.

Few analysts doubt the United States would indeed prevail in two wars at the same time, but the costs in terms of casualties — both American and coalition — would likely be higher than it would be 10 years ago in a similar situation.

The U.S. military for the last decade was sized to a two-war strategy — being able to fight and win two nearly simultaneous "major regional contingencies," rather than the global and possibly nuclear conflict contemplated during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Those two regional contingencies were always expected to be in Iraq and North Korea, the bogeymen of the post-Cold War world.

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, however, the United States military has been cut almost in half in size — a conscious response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War-sized force that fought in Operation Desert Storm — a half-million man ground force backed by a massive air force that averaged 2,500 missions a day.

But so too has the Iraqi army been cut in half. What was once a million-man army now has around 400,000 soldiers. Before Desert Storm, Iraq had roughly 5,500 tanks. After a decade of sanctions, Iraq is now estimated by scholars and analysts to have about 2,200 tanks. Light armored tanks and personnel carriers have dropped from roughly 7,500 to 3,000.

While it still maintains a massive army, North Korea, too, has been in an economic tailspin for much of the last decade that has seriously eroded its ability and readiness to fight, according to a 1997 Defense Intelligence Agency report. "Subsequent threat assessments reconfirm that decline, notwithstanding some modest improvements," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

At the same time, the U.S. military has boosted its stores of precision munitions significantly and invested heavily in unmanned battlefield drones, making it possible for fewer pilots and soldiers to do more damage to more enemy targets.

In the Persian Gulf War, for instance, less than 10 percent of the munitions were "smart bombs." In Afghanistan, the number was closer to 60 percent.

While precision guided munitions are in no way error-free, Pentagon planners no longer ask "How many bombs do we need to get this target?" but instead, "How many targets can we get with this single plane," according to military analysts.

The picture is not all rosy, however. Forced to fight in two theaters of war today, the U.S. military would rely heavily on what is known as a "swing" strategy: hold back forces in one conflict while focusing on a second until it is won. Then key and short-supply assets like stealth aircraft, AWACS and JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft would be shifted to the other war to finish it off.

"It is possible if they are willing to hold one while doing the other," said Colin Robinson, a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

The critical difference will be in the number of expected casualties. Desert Storm saw just 148 American combat deaths and 458 wounded.

"We can do it, but with a higher risk of casualties. If the U.S. goes to war with Iraq and is suddenly confronted with something the North Koreans do, I think they could halt an invasion but with a higher number of casualties than otherwise," Robinson said. "I don't think they have the capability to drive to both Pyongyang and Baghdad" at the same time.

Casualty projections for the various battle scenarios in Iraq and North Korea — plans that are constantly being tinkered with and updated — are classified.

Publicly, defense officials resist downplaying the risk.

"I would just say there's nobody involved in the military planning, to include the secretary or any of the senior leadership in this building … that would say that this sort of endeavor, if we were asked to do it, would be a cakewalk. I mean, it's just not how we characterize it," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers.

In 1999 then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton warned the Senate that two wars could be fought and won, but one would carry with it a "moderate risk" and the second a "high risk" of serious casualties — the highest risk occurring while the first war is still being fought.

While the Pentagon budget has been increased by more than $50 billion since then, the changes that need to happen to decrease the level of risk will take time to bear fruit: recruiting and training more soldiers, building up stores of "smart bombs" and unmanned surveillance aircraft, buying new ships and replenishing spare parts for old weapons.

The threat of higher casualties is not just to American forces but to coalition forces as well. South Korean forces are arrayed across the demilitarized zone and would absorb the first invasion. The roughly 37,000 U.S. troops there are in place primarily for a counter-attack, according to Robinson.

"They (North Korea) have enormous amount of tanks and artillery close up to the border — if they use that all of it will fall completely on South Korean forces. The U.S. will take casualties but not as badly as South Korea on border line," he said.

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