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The Long Shadow of the Korean War

Lessons learned, and not

It’s been 60 years since the armistice that ended the “hot” part of the Korean War was signed, and what today passes for peace broke out. Since then, there has been a lot of time to ponder the strategic “lessons learned” from that conflict, and then forget and relearn them several times over. Some of these seem obvious, and are taught as maxims at military academies around the world. Other Korean War lessons are more subtle, and represent second-level outcomes from America’s first post-World War II armed conflict. All of them though, are worth considering as we begin the exit from our longest war – the present conflict in Afghanistan.

 Other Korean War lessons are more subtle, and represent second-level outcomes from America’s first post-World War II armed conflict. All of them though, are worth considering as we begin the exit from our longest war – the present conflict in Afghanistan.

Lesson 1 – Don’t Fight an Asian Land War

This old chestnut of advice has been around for decades, and yet never seems to be heeded by great nations. The reality is that generally everything about Asian nations is big, even regarding the geographically smaller countries like the Koreas. The lineup of forces on both sides is worth a look on this issue. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) had as allies, willing to commit personnel and state-of-the-art weaponry, the two largest geographic and populated nations on Earth: the newly formed People’s Republic of China (PRC – 1949), and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR – the Soviet Union). The Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) had a more varied cast of allies, drawn from the United Nations (U.N.) members willing to commit forces following the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 82. Of course, the largest and most powerful of the U.N. members to commit forces was the United States, which still maintains more than 30,000 personnel on the peninsula to this day. The reality was that once the PRC and USSR committed their ground and air forces in late 1950, a bloody stalemate was inevitable until the belligerents could arrive at some sort of treaty arrangement to end hostilities. It took another two years, a new president (Dwight D. Eisenhower), and a threat of nuclear weapon use in a strategic role to make those negotiations serious. Sadly, the United States has repeated this pattern of ground intervention numerous times in the half-century since the end of hostilities in Korea, with the experiences of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to show for it. Post-World War II history tells us that only air and sea power, along with short-duration ground operations, have provided the United States more viable options for influencing events ashore, lessons future American leaders will hopefully keep in mind the next time America is deciding to go to war.

North Korean Observation Post

A North Korean observation post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jeffrey Allen

 

Lesson 2 – Choose Good Ground

A corollary of Lesson No. 1 above, one of the first lessons taught at military academies across the globe is to always try to fight on “good ground.” Sadly, any military planner or commander would consider little about the terrain of the Korean Peninsula as “good ground.” Rocky coastlines, rugged mountains, and deep valleys, rivers, rice paddies, and just a few harbors characterize the terrain. Korea was then, and is now, a place where being on the defensive is a distinct advantage, aided by a very confined battlespace given its borders with the PRC and USSR. These imposed borders meant that air and sea power, the two key advantages of the U.N. forces in Korea, were greatly inhibited in their ability to influence events on the ground. The genuine fear that the PRC and USSR might declare war on the U.N. forces was a specter that hung over the Korean conflict until the armistice in 1953. As it was, U.N. aircraft regularly violated the PRC/USSR borders in what was called “hot pursuit,” which enraged the Chinese and Soviets. From that reality came the fear of sparking World War III, and the Korean conflict degraded into a fight that anyone who had fought on the Italian mainland in World War II would have recognized. This, in turn, generated enormous casualties on both sides, and made a resolution that much more difficult to negotiate.

ROKS Cheonan (PCC 772)

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert tours a memorial dedicated to the Republic of Korea (ROK) navy corvette ROKS Cheonan (PCC 772) at Pyeongtaek Naval Base. The ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo on March 26, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor

 

Lesson 3 – Don’t Miss Generations of  Technology and Tactical Modernization

There is a popular saying around the Washington, D.C., Beltway that the U.S. military is always preparing for the last war. In the case of Korea, this saying was never more true. The vast majority of the weapons, tactics, and operational doctrine used by the U.N. forces in Korea were of World War II vintage, and virtually no training had been done with them since VJ-Day. Sherman tanks, M1 Garand combat rifles, and F4U Corsair and P/F-51 Mustang fighter-bombers were the backbone of American combat arms early in the Korean War. Wanting to lower the vast wartime budget deficit and believing that strategic nuclear weapons and heavy bombers would keep the peace, the Truman administration had gutted the U.S. military and the defense budget. Only a handful of new military technologies, including jet engines and swept-wing aircraft, were pursued, and then only in relatively small numbers. So when Korea erupted into a major theater conflict in 1950, everything that could go wrong for the U.S. and U.N. forces did. Untrained U.S. units were decimated in their first encounters with DPRK forces, and only the meager airpower that could be staged from Japan and the few aircraft carriers still in commission kept the U.N. forces on the peninsula. It would be years before the U.S. arsenal would begin to see updated weapons, and those would mainly be directed at the delivery of nuclear/thermonuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this decision to make U.S. defense strategy following Korea “all nuke” was itself a turn down the wrong road, something it would take the twin traumas of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam for the United States to fully realize.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...