Military technology has moved on since the Vietnam war. The defeat of the United States by an army employing basic artillery and machine guns supplemented by creative use of bamboo, has left an indelible impression on the western psyche. But it is in many ways a false one. Many trillions of dollars have been spent since on military technology, and the gap in resources between the USA and most potential opponents is enormous.
The effect of this technology gap is plain to see in recent conflicts. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya the conventional fighting was won extremely quickly. In Iraq really substantial Iraqi conventional forces, technologically rather more advanced than North Korean, were wiped out while they inflicted almost no damage. The Falklands War was also a striking instance of the difference between the most advanced and middle ranking military technology. The gap has grown since. Modern western military aircraft technology is very little vulnerable to the air defence systems that can be deployed against it.
Of course, all those conflicts illustrate that winning a conventional war phase is the beginning, not the end, of problems for the western powers and that such conflicts are extremely damaging not just to the attacked party, and to the world in general, but to the western powers that “win”. But great for shifting wealth from ordinary western people to the military and armaments industry.
North Korea has massive military resources in numerical terms. But in truth North Korea deploys almost nothing on the ground that would have been extremely startling to an informed person in 1946. If the United States chose to throw a really serious percentage of its military resources at North Korea, more than it threw at Iraq – and I specifically mean aerial forces and missiles – it could wipe out North Korea’s military capacity extremely quickly. It could even do so before North Korea could inflict damage on Seoul of cataclysmic proportions.
All this would of course involve the deaths of millions of North Koreans, mostly civilians, and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. But it could be done.
There are two groups of people who will be irked by this analysis. The first group are those who detest the United States and therefore dearly wish it was militarily weaker than it is. But the truth is that for my entire lifetime, the United States military has had over three times as much money spent on equipping it as the Soviet/Russian and Chinese militaries combined. That is a very bad thing for the United States, but nonetheless it is true. That does have an effect.
The second group who will disagree vehemently with me are, counter-intuitively, the western arms manufacturers and military lobby.
During the cold war we were taught for years that the mighty Red Army was set to roll over Europe. I recall television programmes showing diagrams with scores of Russian tanks for every NATO tank opposing them. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in many of the former Soviet Republics and, for a period under Yeltsin, in Russia itself, western military attaches were able to get a close-up look at what had been the Soviet war machine. The overwhelming trend of a great mass of evidence was that the West had vastly over-estimated Soviet military capacity, both in terms of quantity and especially quality of its capabilities.
This was, of course, not an accident. The arms industry, the military and the security services were the institutions which were responsible for estimating Soviet military strength. The arms industry, the military and security services all had the strongest possible motive for over-estimating Soviet strength. Their own funding and thus the incomes and career opportunities of those doing the estimating, all depended on the over-estimates.
There was a very brief period at the end of the Cold War when this reality was acknowledged in Whitehall and I remember it clearly within the FCO. It was, as I say, a very brief period. The armaments, military and security industries will always massively over-estimate the “opposition” and explain that only vastly more resources fed their way can “keep us safe”.
To return to the United States’ ability to crush North Korea militarily if it really puts major resources into it, my worry is that Donald Trump is aware of this. He appears to be crazy enough to consider doing it, or at least to threaten to do it, which is almost as dangerous.
But the danger is not, as media pundits have it, that North Korea is too strong and would pulverise South Korea. That is not a real danger, unless Trump’s attack was half-hearted or token. The obvious and massive danger is that China would never accept a military attack on its ally, and Trump would be risking a nuclear conflict which ruins us all.
I do not think Trump is crazy enough to risk a military attack on North Korea. But he plainly is crazy enough to think that this kind of crude threatening posture is the way to get China to take serious action against Kim Jong On. That is a very serious misreading of China. How the United States copes over the next decade with being overtaken by China as the biggest global superpower, will define the coming century. Trump appears to be making a calamitous start.