The Return of Task Force Smith

By Ray Starmann

The Return of Task Force Smith

’When you get to Pusan, head for Taejon. We want to stop the North Koreans as far from Pusan as we can. Block the main road as far north as possible. Make contact with General Church. If you can’t find him, go to Taejon and beyond if you can. Sorry I can’t give you more information—that’s all I’ve got. Good luck, and God bless you and your men!’

— Major General William F. Dean’s orders to Colonel Smith

The US Army is in trouble; besieged by budget cuts, debilitated by 16 years of fighting endless, wars, eaten alive by social engineering, it is sorely lacking one of the vital components needed to be victorious, an armored and mechanized capability with the skilled officers and troopers needed to execute and win a future war against the type of opponent the US military hasn’t faced since the Korean War, over 60 years ago.

In many aspects, the lean green machine is a hollow force and unless certain adjustments are made, it is heading for a military catastrophe equal to or much worse than the debacle of Task Force Smith in 1950.

Task Force Smith, named for its commander, consisted of 406 men of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, as well as 134 men of A Battery, 52nd Field Artillery Battalion. The forces were both poorly equipped and under strength. Most of the soldiers of the Task Force were teenagers with no combat experience and only eight weeks of basic training. Only one third of the officers in the Task Force had combat experience from World War II, and only one in six enlisted soldiers had combat experience. 

In two days of fighting at the Battle of Osan, on July 4-5, 1950, TF Smith was outgunned and outfought by elements of the North Korean 10th Armored Division and North Korean 4th Infantry Division.

The 24th Infantry Division’s 2.35 inch bazooka round were largely ineffective against the Soviet T-34 tank. Because of peacetime defense cutbacks the 24th Infantry Division had never received improved U.S. M20 3.5-inch bazookas with M28A2 HEAT antitank ammunition, capable of defeating Soviet armor.

Eventually overwhelmed by nearly 5,000 North Korean troops, Task Force Smith was forced to withdraw from its positions and move south toward Osan. The retreat quickly broke down into a confused and disorganized rout. Task Force Smith suffered its highest casualties during this withdrawal as its soldiers were exposed to enemy fire.

250 soldiers from Task Force Smith returned to the American lines before nightfall, with casualties mounting to: 60 dead, 21 wounded and 82 captured, 32 of which would die in captivity.

The Battle of Osan was the first U.S. ground action of the war. The fight showed that American forces were weak and unprepared for the war; outdated equipment was insufficient to fight North Korean armor and poorly trained and inexperienced units were no match for better-trained North Korean troops – though the disparity in number of troops engaged certainly had a profound effect on the outcome of this battle. Undisciplined U.S. troops abandoned their positions prematurely, leaving equipment and wounded for North Korean troops to capture. Smith also said he felt he had stayed too long in his position, allowing North Korean troops to envelop the force and cause heavy casualties as it retreated. These weaknesses would play out with other U.S. units for the next month as North Korean troops pushed them further back.

One North Korean officer later told historian John Toland that the American forces at the battle seemed “too frightened to fight.”

And, this was only five years down the road from such spectacular American victories on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the final and brilliant armored and mechanized campaigns in Europe in 1945. The mighty US military that had beaten the daylights out of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been decimated by President Truman’s budget cuts.

The US military budget in 1950 was a mere 12% of the wartime spending.

The US military in 1950 was a shadow of its former self.

The US Army in 1950 was untrained, unskilled, poorly motivated and led by many officers who lacked every basic tenet of successful leadership.

And, here we are in 2017.

The Army’s FY 2017 budget is 1.4 billion lower than FY 2016 and from a height of 566,000 in FY 2011, the Army’s active duty end strength has shrunk to nearly 475,000 in FY 2016 on a path to 460,000 by the end of FY 2017. Active duty strength hasn’t been this low since 1940. In FY 2016, total Army end strength was 1,030,000 soldiers: 483,000 Active soldiers, 200,000 in the Army Reserve, and 348,000 in the Army National Guard.

While active duty levels are low, the Army is stressed to the breaking point with commitments stationing 190,000 soldiers forward in 140 countries.

The bread and butter of the US Army are its brigade combat teams or BCT’s.

BCT’s are normally employed within a larger framework of U.S. land operations, but are sufficiently equipped and organized so that they can conduct independent operations as circumstances demand. A BCT averages 4,500 soldiers in strength depending on its variant: Stryker, Armored, or Infantry. A Stryker BCT is a mechanized infantry force organized around the Stryker ground combat vehicle (GCV). Armored BCTs are the Army’s principal armored units and employ the Abrams main battle tank and the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle. An Infantry BCT is a highly maneuverable motorized unit.

The Army also has a separate air component organized into combat aviation brigades (CABs), which also can operate independently. CABs are made up of Army rotorcraft, such as the AH-64 Apache, and perform various roles including attack, reconnaissance, and lift.

The Active Army has been downsized from 45 BCTs (552,100 soldiers) in FY 2013 to 31 BCTs (475,000 soldiers) in FY 2016.

The Army maintains readiness for only 20 of the 60 total BCTs maintained by the Active, National Guard, and Reserve Components. Of those 20 that are considered ready, 11 are committed to ongoing missions, “leaving only nine to provide strategic flexibility for un-forecasted contingencies.” The other 40 BCTs maintained by the Total Army are limited to “minimum Individual/Crew/Squad resourcing levels through sufficient Training Support Systems.”

The aforementioned numbers can be misleading, as the Active Component maintains a total of only 31 BCTs and realistically maintains only about 30 percent of them at acceptable levels of combat readiness.

Historical evidence shows that, on average, the Army needs 21 brigade combat teams to fight one major regional conflict. Based on a conversion of roughly 3.5 BCTs per division, the Army deployed 21 BCTs in Korea, 25 in Vietnam, 14 in the Persian Gulf War, and around four in Operation Iraqi Freedom—an average of 16 BCTs.

Just over a third of Active BCTs were ready for action according to official Army testimony by the Chief of Staff in April 2016. Therefore, roughly 11 of the Active Army BCTs were considered ready for combat. However, it should be noted that the Vice Chief of Staff also reported in March that of the BCTs fully trained for “decisive action operations,” the readiness of nine had been consumed in support of ongoing operations, which means that only three were uncommitted and ready for use.

If the balloon goes up in Korea, or in the Ukraine or the Baltics, the Army will have very little to bring to the fight.

In addition to the weak operational readiness and strength of the US Army, is what Colonel Gian Gentile called The Death of the Armor Corps in an article originally published in 2010.

Gentile’s article was an eye opener into the tragic state of the Army’s armored and mechanized capabilities seven years ago.

The author wrote: “I have also heard reports from the field that the operational army has Armor (19K) Non Commissioned Officers as high as the rank of Staff Sergeant who have never qualified on a M1 Tank.  Too, when was the last time that a heavy Brigade Combat Team has done a combined arms, live fire exercise integrating all arms at Brigade level?  Do the Armor, Artillery, and Infantry Branches even have the collective knowledge to know how to do one anymore?  My own experience as a Cavalry Squadron Commander returning from a combat deployment in Baghdad a few years ago mirrors these kinds of stories where I had lieutenants who had never qualified on a Bradley and a Squadron that didn’t know collectively anymore how to run a Bradley Gunnery Range.  Such skills may seem insignificant but they are not because they indicate the collective knowledge and competency (or lack of it) of a tactical level combined arms formation.”

When the article came out, the army had already been fighting in Afghanistan for nine years and in Iraq for seven.

Colonel Gentile also wrote: “What if the American Army has to fight somebody in the future beyond insurgents laying IEDs and small arms ambushes that is usually handled effectively by infantry platoons?  What if a heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was told to pick up and head east and do a movement to contact into a threatening country? Could we do it?  It would be hard to do such an operation without the intellectual framework of an Armored Force that the American Army used to have, but of late has gone away.  It will be hard, very hard to get it back.  Competent field armies, skilled in all-arms warfare, are not made overnight.”

Colonel Gentile’s article was widely lambasted by fellow army officers at the time, many whose only experience was fighting against insurgents in the Middle East.

One example of the outcry against Gentile, was an article titled, A Combined Arms Response to the Death of the Armor Corps, by Major James Smith and Major James Harbridge, also published in 2010.

They argued:

“Since the emergence of Counterinsurgency (COIN) as a strategy in 2004, it has gained widespread acceptance both within and outside of the military. It has gained so much acceptance that it has essentially become Army dogma. Most writing on the subject is overwhelming supportive. However, one officer has stood out because he has dared to write articles that question COIN. Colonel Gian Gentile has been the one dissenting voice in the Army. Colonel Gentile should get back on his conventional horse, buckle his chinstrap and continue his charge for the combined-arms high ground.”

The ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ mentality swept through the army for over a decade like a three alarm fire. Examining past issues of Armor Magazine online, most articles are devoted to fighting insurgencies and from 2004 to 2016, it is hard to find an article in the Armor Branch publication that dealt with traditional armored warfare.

Seven years have passed and Colonel Gentile’s prophetic warnings have finally materialized. In a January, 2017, article published in the Washington Free Beacon and the Wall Street Journal, General Ben Hodges, US Army Europe commander discussed reports of US Army tanks arriving in Germany without fuel and with dead batteries, a sure sign that basic armor skills and knowledge are severely lacking among the force.

Hodges stated: “It is stuff we used to know.”

Only recently has the light bulb finally gone on. The army has finally realized that it must once again have a strong armored and mechanized capability, in the event it has to fight North Korea, Russia or China.

But, highly skilled, well trained, exceptional armored and mechanized forces are not built overnight in a mad scramble to erase 15 years of neglect.  The army that won Desert Storm had been preparing for 20 years to fight the Soviet Army and the Warsaw Pact forces. Desert Storm may have been fought at 73 Easting and Medina Ridge, but it was won at Graf, at Hohenfels and at the NTC.

While the US Army has had readiness issues before, it has never been under siege by ardent leftists and feminists who wish to destroy it and then bring it back to life as some kind of effeminate, politically correct entity, which runs on smoke and mirrors and nothing else.

The army has been under attack for nearly two decades from social engineers who have turned the organization into a huge petri dish for every type of social experiment imaginable. Left wing social concepts that were abhorrent to the army’s leaders for decades have become standard operating procedure.

During the Obama years, the insanity accelerated to light speed as cowardly army senior leaders, lacking in the most basic tenet of leadership, moral courage, stood aside as leftists and cultural Marxists laid siege to the greatest military force in the world.

Many fine officers and NCO’s departed the Army during the last decade; fed up with watching the army being guided by Berkeley style leftists and exhausted from fighting endless wars in the Middle East; repeated deployments that destroyed families and relationships.

Much of the army’s officer corps in 2017 leans left, is politically correct and simply knows no other way of doing business.

Politically correct yes men, aka perfumed princes, get you killed.

Politically correct yes men, aka perfumed princes, lose wars.

In conclusion, the army needs money, needs troops and it needs senior leaders with moral courage, senior leaders who care about the troops, not just about their next star.

Under the direction of Secretary Mattis, the PC madness must stop or it will not only tear apart the army at the seams, but the very fabric of the US armed forces.

The army is in a race against time. If called upon to fight a major war today, the US Army may very well be in dire straits. We might very well see the Return of Task Force Smith.