National Security & Defense

War with North Korea Is a Distinct Possibility

North Korean military units on parade in Pyongyang in 2015. (KCNA/via Reuters)
What more will it take to get Congress to rebuild the military?

Retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix is a good friend and a fine defense analyst. He has written an essay that begins with an account of what happened on board the USS Fitzgerald after it was struck by a container vessel in June. I hope everyone reads it, even though it will break your heart.

After the Fitzgerald was struck, portions of its lower deck began to flood rapidly, including a berthing space where more than 30 sailors were sleeping. The sailors struggled in virtual darkness to climb out of the flood; senior sailors risked their lives to go into the water and rescue as many of their shipmates as possible. But as the water reached the hatch, it threatened to flood the rest of the ship, which could have caused the Fitzgerald to founder and sink.

The sailors waited until the last possible moment. They got as many men out as they could. But their training and ethos is, as Captain Hendrix relates: “ship, shipmate, self” — in that order. To save their friends, the sailors would risk themselves, but not their ship.

They closed the hatch.

Captain Hendrix related the story of the Fitzgerald to make a point about North Korea. It was this: Our senior military leaders are all saying publicly that war with North Korea is possible. Perhaps such a conflict could be strictly limited, but the odds are very much against it. A second Korean war is most likely to result in the death of tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, and it could result in far worse than that if it is protracted, or if the Chinese come in, or if nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction are used.

Leaders such as Jim Mattis are well aware of the terrible risks and costs of such a conflict. They know, much more personally than most of us know, what it would entail. Yet they are saying that the option of war is definitely on the table, because the other option that is emerging is even worse: allowing North Korea time to develop an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with miniaturized nuclear warheads. Such weapons make more likely a North Korean invasion of the South, or the destruction of American or allied cities by nuclear weapons, or both.

In other words, the bigger and more sophisticated the North Korean strategic arsenal gets, the more likely it is that Kim Jong-un will believe it empowers him to start a conventional war with impunity, and the greater the chance that such a war would escalate into a nuclear conflict. That is by no means a certainty, of course, but very few things are certain when it comes to national-security policy. The question is almost always one of comparable risk and the likely consequences if a particular risk is realized.

So it may be necessary, as Captain Hendrix writes, to close the hatch to save the ship: to initiate a conflict that might be uncontainable in order to prevent a future conflict that will be uncontainable. The decision of whether, and when, those are the only remaining options rests in the first instance with the president — which is one reason to ask why anyone would ever want that job.

I want to add a point that I know Captain Hendrix would agree with, though he did not make it in his essay. It is that this whole situation is a manifest example of the broader failure of American national-security policy in the post–Cold War era. In fact, to be forced to choose between a) war under unfavorable circumstances for which America is not prepared, and b) the emergence of an aggressive, uncontainable, existential threat is not just a failure. It’s a disaster on a strategic level.

Through three administrations of both parties, over 20 years, our leaders have failed to define and prioritize America’s vital interests, failed to guard against its vulnerabilities, failed to protect its credibility, and — as I have warned again and again — failed to sustain the tools of power which create options for deterring war or containing conflict when war is necessary. Even now, as the Pentagon is planning for a new conflict in Korea, and as the tide of risk is rising like a storm surge throughout most of the world, Washington is continuing to make the armed forces live under defense sequestration and therefore reduce force size, procurement, modernization, and readiness.

The risk of mission failure will be higher than it should be

To take one particularly relevant example, America should have a multi-layered, comprehensive missile-defense system by now; in fact, we should have had it years ago. The existence of such a defense would have changed the calculus of aggressors worldwide. It might have prevented the crisis we now face in Korea. At minimum it would have given President Trump an additional option for preventing war and reduced the risk of a successful attack on the homeland should war occur.

I have a tremendous faith in the resiliency of America’s armed forces. If the balloon goes up, they will do their duty, as the sailors on the Fitzgerald did theirs. But the risk of mission failure will be higher than it should be, and the casualties will almost certainly be much greater than should have been necessary.

So I will ask the question Captain Hendrix did not ask: What else has to happen — how close does war, with all its horrors, have to come — before Congress closes the hatch on sequestration, before it eliminates the caps, whatever political compromises are necessary to eliminate them, and begins, in earnest, to rebuild the tools of power?

— Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri. He is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.

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