Measuring Its Impact on the Korean Peninsula

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JUNG YEON-JE / AFP / Getty Images

A U.S. soldier takes a position during a live fire training exercise of the U.S. Multiple Launch Rocket System in the South Korean border county of Cheorwon, Sept. 13, 2012.

Part Four of Five

One can easily see how South Korean leaders might be concerned when they hear American leaders say that sequestration would be “catastrophic” for the U.S. military and that “the gap between the U.S. military and our closest rivals will collapse with sequestration.”

They share a border with North Korea, a rival that still considers itself to be in a state of war with the U.S., and in the past has reacted to what it perceived to be weakness with violent acts of aggression. Many, in fact, believe that the original Korean War back in 1950 was started when the North Koreans perceived U.S. weakness and withering alliance ties.

(PHOTOS: Re-Enacting the Korean War)

But as we’ve already noted, by any financial measure, the U.S. defense budget would be far from a “paper tiger” that is “unable to keep up” with an adversary like North Korea. Even under sequestration, the U.S. budget is not merely 60% larger than North Korea, but 60 times larger.

To only compare defense budget numbers, though, would be a mistake. These dollars only matter as far as they translate into the capabilities of the militaries.

The challenge of exploring sequestration’s impact on U.S. and allied capabilities in Korea is the huge amount of uncertainty that surrounds it.

We don’t know yet if sequestration will even happen and, in turn, how it would be implemented if so. While the law calls for across the board cuts, there have been different signals as to what level of specificity these would enact at, and what buckets might be excluded.

In September 2012, the White House signaled that its plan for sequestration would be 9.4% to 10% cuts on almost all programs, excluding areas like healthcare and military pay. This may not be the final way it is executed, both because Congress could legislate alternative approaches to soften the blow, or the executive branch might interpret the finding more flexibly in execution (many believe that the White House believed that specifying its plans for sequestration now would muddy the waters for the hoped for compromise to avoid it). Already, leaders are discussing ways to give the Pentagon “wiggle room.”

But if we’re going to weigh whether sequestration would really invite “aggression” or mean that he US military “will no longer be a super power” as claimed by some, we should look at the worst case scenarios.

The most immediate impact of sequestration in Asia would be lowered spending by the Pentagon on its activities there.  If sequestration’s approximate 10% across-the-board cuts went into effect, direct American military spending in South Korea in 2013 would decline by roughly $112 million, instead of going down by just $4 million as currently planned.  For all of East Asia, America’s military spending after sequestration would go down by $115 million, instead of the planned increase of $234 million.

How this lowered spending would immediately translate in real terms would likely be various delays or stops to planned repairs, upgrades, and new construction at American bases and facilities. These planned upgrades might not only affect issues like quality of life (older barracks not being repaired or replaced), but even some areas of effectiveness (the delay of building a new cyberwarfare facility as an illustration). It might even lead to some of the major troop movements planned as part of America’s realignment in Asia being delayed or stopped.

Much like sequestration’s cuts back home, this lowered spending then wouldn’t just impact the U.S. troops and families on those bases, but also have a knock-on effect to the local economy that surrounds these bases.

Of deeper concern, however, may be how the cuts affect various operations accounts, leading to reduced training time, wargames, and exercises. Senior American military officers with worry that fewer exercises with allies in the region won’t just hamper their level of readiness, but also hinder confidence in each other.

A more direct way to look at how the budget cuts might translate is through reduced capability. The caveat here is that most experts think it unlikely that sequestration will entail military personnel cuts. The White House has said military personnel will be exempt, but it does retain the ability to reassess.

In either case, it is still useful to examine this scenario, not only as a potential contingency, but also as a proxy for what a generalized 10% loss in capability to U.S. forces in terms of personnel on hand in Korea for day one of any war might look like. The below chart shows the combined numbers of U.S. forces in East Asia and their South Korean forces, broken down by services.

This is how these forces stand in comparison to the North Korean military:

If U.S. forces were to experience 10% cuts on top of the already expected cuts to service end-strengths, these are how the numbers change.

Of course, comparing raw numbers of personnel is not the only or even best measure of force capability. Another is to compare the weapons systems they utilize. Below are the American weapons systems based inside South Korea.

To explore the impact of sequestration then on these forces, we looked at it in two different but harsh scenarios. The first is a scenario in which there are 10% across-the-board cuts in the systems that are available to U.S. forces in Korea. Of course, again, this is not how the cuts would likely be executed, but it provides a tough scenario to explore what deep cuts would translate into.

The other is a nightmare version of a more likely scenario. Many believe that if sequestration were to occur,   instead of across the board cuts of 10%, a deal may be worked out whereby the DoD may still be given the flexibility to target more fungible areas within its overall budget, as long as it cuts the whole by 10%. That is, if we follow the pattern of what has happened in the past, deeper cuts would be made to operations, depot maintenance accounts, and civilian workers, in order to spare other less flexible or political sensitive parts of the budget (i.e. military personnel, contingency operations in places like Afghanistan, and the first quarter of FY13). In this scenario, the budget may be cut by 10%, but the Bipartisan Policy Center, for instance, has projected the potential for this to translate into a 30% loss to force readiness from actual FY13 requests.

It is difficult to project exactly how this might affect the actual forces available in Korea. The raw numbers of weapons in the field would roughly stay the same, but many fear this would create a type of “hollow military.” That is, in an echo back to the post-Vietnam military, because of delayed repairs and maintenance, a significant portion would not actually be ready for use. For this scenario, the 30% force readiness loss is explored. That is, if maintenance is cut by 30%, it is reasonable that a range of some 30% more systems might now be in disrepair or out of service in some way (the actual tables of how maintenance spending translates to readiness are deeply disputed; the goal here was to give a usable range).

As the above table illustrates, the irony is that cuts from more fungible accounts could potentially create a much worse outcome for allied forces. This is why senior U.S. officers tend to prefer a smaller, more capable force to a large hollow one.

It is important to add here that a key variable to keep an eye on in such force availability is the effect that sequestration might have on the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet. A significant part of the multirole air numbers come from carrier air groups bundled together on a ship.

Currently, Carrier Strike Group Five in Japan and Carrier Strike Group Nine in the Western Pacific are those immediately available to support U.S. ground forces in Korea and supply a bulk of the strike aviation assets. Over time, sequestration could reduce total number of carrier strike groups to as low eight instead of the current 11. This might happen through sequestration leading to delayed construction, early retirement, and maintenance and refit delays (for example if funding for work on the USS Abraham Lincoln’s nuclear reactor get slashed).

Any lower overall numbers of carriers would hamper the Navy’s target of six carrier strike groups deployed or ready to deploy, as a smaller number of ships would be spread further apart. It is likely, however, that the Navy would mitigate this by focusing its smaller number of carriers on deployments in Asia at the detriment of other regions (the withdrawal of a carrier strike force from the Mediterranean is an example already).

Yet, while the numbers of forces available obviously are worse in either a scenario of 10% or even 30% cuts to the U.S. forces, it’s still hard to see any connection to the nightmarish visions being painted of a “destroyed” military that “invites aggression.” And, again, these numbers only reflect what is available in East Asia on the first day of a conflict with North Korea, not forces that might be flowed in from other regions or deployed into action from the continental U.S. (such as long-range strike planes and fighter jets based in the U.S. that would flow in by the literal hundreds after a conflict began).

Another way to answer if sequestration might invite aggression on the Korean peninsula is to look at how these numbers stand in comparison to North Korean assets. This is how a North Korea planner might evaluate the situation, conducting a net assessment of the balance of forces to see if there is a window of opportunity opened up by U.S. cuts.

Here again, the forces available to the allies grow worse with each scenario, but not fundamentally so. North Korea certainly has not been the most logical country when it comes to its politics. But it’s hard to see how Pyongyang’s net assessment of its foes would draw a completely different conclusion when it has 612 fewer fighters versus just 526 fewer. Or, in turn, how North Korea would see itself gaining a game-changing advantage as it goes from having 9,882 more artillery tube to 9,913 more.

To make a historic comparison, none of the scenarios is even close to the situation of 1950 that is perhaps the best modern case of American weakness “inviting aggression.” The post-World War II U.S. had drastically reduced forces in Asia, which combined with diplomatic miscalculation, signaled an opportunity for North Korean aggression. To compound the problem, the U.S. sent the makeshift Task Force Smith to try to stem the invasion, with tragic losses.

But dig any deeper and none of the parallels holds true. Task Force Smith was just 406 troops. Moreover, Task Force Smith was not just massively outnumbered, it was poorly trained and lightly armed, being made up of infantry facing off against North Korean tank units. Even worse, many of Task Force Smith’s weapons were a generation behind its contemporary foes (the Americans’ antitank rockets, for instance, could not penetrate the newer Soviet-provided tanks that the North Koreans used in 1950). None of this is even in the same range today.

This is not just the matter of comparing a makeshift unit of 400 troops with no tanks against a modern fighting force of tens of thousands, armed with everything from tanks to Apache helicopters. There is also the fact that when comparing allied to adversary weapons today, numbers lie. One does not equal one.

For instance, the most common fighter jet in the North Korean inventory today is the MiG-21. It was already becoming outdated by the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and is certainly no comparison to the updated versions of the F-15K used in Korea.

Such qualitative differences are important not just in comparing airpower but also how it affects other weapons comparisons. For instance, North Korean’s edge in the number of tanks isn’t just balanced by how much more capable the more modern allied forces’ tanks are, but also by the fact that most of North Korea’s wouldn’t even make it close enough into the fight to engage in tank-on-tank battles. They would instead be taken out well behind the DMZ by allied air strikes (as in Iraq, where most enemy tanks were taken out not by ground fire, but air power).

Obviously, the long-term shrinking of US spending on research and development would degrade these technologic advantages, but it is still important to remember that overall U.S. military R&D spending is not just bigger than any other nations’ R&D spending in the world, but actually bigger than all but one nation’s overall military spending.

Part 5: Sequestration’s stupid, but the sky remains intact

Part 1: A sequestration primer

Part 2: Comparing defense budgets, apples to apples

Part 3: A case study: east Asia

Part 4: Impact on the Korean peninsula

Part 5: Stupid, but not disastrous

Peter W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. Check here for the full list of source material for this series of articles.