The Korean Conflict Is/Could/Would Be A Bad Thing

Entries have been a bit sparse lately, but as the semester is winding down hopefully things will pick back up again on this front.  Aside from that, I had a few quick thoughts on some of the implications of the current conflict that is brewing between North and South Korea.

It's pretty clear that any military conflict coming out of this latest dispute would be a bad thing—The American military is already strained with the conflict in Afghanistan, the American public is weary of 9 years of war, and then there is also the question of how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.  In any event, it's only a matter of time before some of the conservative think tanks begin trotting out arguments for increasing defense spending, using the current tensions in North Korea as an example of how we are dangerously ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that the world is throwing our way.

Any war with North Korea would involve the old reliables—tanks, jets, bombs, artillery, etc.  This is all stuff that we're familiar with.  And with the possibility of the Chinese backing North Korea, supporters of some of the top dollar items in the military's arsenal have the fodder they need to justify a massive buildups of conventional forces.  The danger here is that this will take attention away from some of the less sexy, but highly necessary tools used in counterinsurgency programs.  Aircraft carriers and F-22s are cool.  Deciding what caliber bullet should be standard issue in military rifles is decidedly less so, and probably comes off as technocratic gibberish  to most.  

It seems inevitable that this situation will have some effect on the debates at home over cuts to defense spending and the restructuring of the military.  And with the Afghan war resuming center stage I think we're going to be seeing much more discussion over the tactics and tools needed to fight the kinds of conflicts we'll be involved in over the next 20-30 years.  We've already seen some of this emerging over the decision to send M-1 tanks to Afghanistan.  And with tensions flaring in Korea we are likely to see further emphasis placed on conventional forces and weapons systems, as opposed to counterinsurgency programs.  Nevermind the fact that this incident will probably not lead to full blown war, it still remains an attention getter, and given the deployment of an American carrier to stage joint exercises with the South Koreans, it puts the spotlight on some of the biggest and fanciest toys we have.  

Ultimately I'm interested in how these sorts of events reflect the learning processes of decision makers in the US.  To some extent we have some control over the types of conflicts that we select into.  But it seems to me that the main problem is the demonstrated willingness on the part of some to select themselves into conflicts for which they are woefully unprepared, while simultaneously pressing for an increased allocation of defense dollars to programs that are inadequate for addressing the needs of these sorts of conflicts.  Rather, you can't be pressing for the invasion and occupation of states while simultaneously pressing for increased spending on projects that do little to aid in the latter half of this process.  Big ticket items like F-22s and destroyers do little to help in the occupation of a country like Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other country where we'd be likely to face a long and grinding insurgency during our occupation period.

I'm sure politicians find it easier to gather votes by arguing that we need to spend more on destroyers and advanced fighter jets than to argue that spending levels are OK, but that we simply need to invest in a higher caliber rifle.  But problems arise when this sort of campaign rhetoric is blindly turned into action once in office.  I get the sense that there is still an enormous effort on the part of some politicians and policymakers to force conflicts to fit our mold, to force big and pretty weapons systems to serve a function in conflicts where their use may be less than appropriate, given a range of alternatives.  

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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