With North Korea admitting it was still producing nuclear weapons, and saying, in effect, so what, leaves many wondering if America might be stretched a bit too thin. What with the hunt for al Qaeda terrorists world wide and a coming invasion of Iraq, adding a war in Korea seems a bit much.
Things appear different when you look at the details. First of all, the Department of Defense has over a million troops on active duty, plus another million in the reserves. There are ten army divisions, two marine division and smaller combat units equal another two divisions. We have the largest navy on the planet and the most powerful air force. Actually, make that air forces, for the army, navy and marines each have their own air forces.
The search for al Qaeda terrorists does not require a lot of troops, for the very simple reason that the terrorists are all over the planet and most nations wont allow U.S. troops in to chase down terrorists. Afghanistan is one exception and that involves fewer than 10,000 personnel. The al Qaeda campaign is largely police, intelligence and diplomatic work.
What about conquering Iraq. Sure, it took nearly twenty American and coalition divisions to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. That was the famous Hundred Hour War. But let us not forget that the Brits did it with three divisions in a few weeks in 1941 and recent reports (published and otherwise) indicate a "velvet revolution" as in 1989 Eastern Europe is brewing. We already have two divisions in Kuwait to take advantage of a popular uprising against Saddam and his hated Baath party.
Korea is another matter, although a lot of people in the Pentagon have long maintained that the South Koreans are capable of dealing with a North Korean invasion by themselves. In practical terms, our main contribution would be air power. With JDAM, and other smart bombs, the same number of bombers go a lot further. So the U.S. Air Force doesnt have to fly everything available to South Korea if the northerners invade. Moreover, morale in North Korea has been getting a lot more brittle through the 1990s. Think about it, over a million people dead of starvation and the families of those dead are supplying the conscripts for the army. In those circumstances, how good would your morale be? One joke in the South Korean army is that they should replace the minefields on the DMZ with piles of food and beer. The North Korean troops would eagerly stop for a meal and could be disarmed while they were feasting. Meanwhile, there one, under strength, American division in South Korea, with enough additional equipment already there to double the number of U.S. ground combat units available once troops are flown in. If the South Koreans caved, the U.S. would have to call up al the reserves and possibly resort to the draft to raise a large enough army to set things right. Meanwhile, the South Koreans have a tremendous incentive (one of the wealthiest economies in Asia) to defend themselves and there is no indication they would be a pushover. Moreover, South Korea has a larger army than North Korea and a much larger economy.
Homeland defense is another matter. A lot of reserve troops have been called up for things like guarding airports and improving security around military bases. Some of the government agencies normally responsible for Homeland Defense (like the INS and FBI) have been long overdue for some serious reforms. That would have had to happen with or without 911, otherwise we are just wasting billions on hapless organizations.
While there are plenty of combat troops for all three of these wars, there will be some crucial shortages. Air transport is a big one. In theory we have plenty of air transport, with over 500 four engine transports available. But in practice there is far more stuff to be moved than there are air transports to move it. Theres also not enough electronic warfare and command do units to go around. But none of this means all three wars cannot be fought at once. Moreover, if you dont expect zero casualties (which cant be guaranteed anyway, war is too risky and unpredictable), getting involved in Korea or Iraq with less than overwhelming force still gives American troops, with their superior training, leadership and equipment, an edge.