Forces dwindled in war's wake Quick gulf victory impossible to repeat WAR IN THE GULF

GULF WAR: A MIXED LEGACY U.S.

January 16, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The United States' dazzling victory in the Persian Gulf war could not be repeated today. One year later, the U.S. military has neither the manpower nor the weapons to overcome an enemy so quickly while suffering so little damage.

The cutbacks began to accelerate almost immediately after the 43-day war ended. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a nuclear threat, U.S. budget deficits took precedence over the increasingly costly military machine.

Thousands of troops deployed to Saudi Arabia from Germany have been brought home to face possible layoffs later this year. Whole Army units, including the 3rd Armored Division, are being deactivated in Europe this week. The Navy's last two battleships, Wisconsin and Missouri, have been retired.

"You could fight another Operation Desert Storm, but not with the same casualties, not within the same amount of time," said John M. Collins, senior national defense specialist at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. "There are some things you couldn't do again."

An Army colonel who was an aide to retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf agrees. "We used a mass force -- half a million troops -- when we did the Arabian peninsula, but from now on we'll have to emphasize an economy of force and use maneuver and deception more," said the officer, who declined to be identified.

"You can't run a wishbone [offense] with nine men."

Aside from manpower reductions, some of the hardware that won the war against Iraq -- F-15 and F-16 fighters, AH-64 Apache helicopters, the Navy's A-6 attack plane, F-117A Stealth fighters, A-10 Warthog tank-busting planes, M1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles -- were already out of production when the war began or were marked for cancellation.

Even though a leaner U.S. military would remain the world's pre-eminent fighting force, a "base force" proposed by the Bush administration last year could not maintain a continuous overseas presence in as many places as before. Nor could it assure a rapid response to a crisis, said Mr. Collins, who issued a study on military capabilities last week, drawn partly from information supplied by senior military planners.

A reduction in the aircraft carrier fleet would undercut the U.S. ability to keep a continuous presence in the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and other waters, "which is the key to quick response when crises occur," he said. In addition, depleted U.S. air power, even though technologically superior, would be less capable of conducting simultaneous bombing, air defense and support operations for ground combat.

The planned cuts will make it even harder to create an adequate "rotation base" to relieve weary combat forces during a long war without a more extensive call-up of reserves than the one ordered for the gulf operation, Mr. Collins said.

By this time last year, at least 40 percent of key U.S. combat forces were devoted to the Persian Gulf war, including an entire European-based armored corps, two-thirds of the Marine Corps, six aircraft carriers, two battleship groups, seven attack submarines and nearly half of the Air Force's fighter attack squadrons. The entire conflict lasted seven weeks, the ground war 100 hours.

Under current plans, military personnel would be cut by 521,000, or 25 percent, through the 1996 fiscal year. That means 12 Army divisions instead of 18, 26 tactical fighter wings instead of 36 and a naval fleet of roughly 450 ships instead of the one-time goal of 600.

Moreover, the administration has been reviewing options for deeper long-term cuts. Many budget analysts think those cuts will be deepened by congressional Democrats seeking a larger "peace dividend."

Analysts also have warned about a widening gap between the cost of developing the next generation of weaponry and the money available to pay for it.

Looking ahead, Mr. Collins' study challenges the wisdom of pursuing an "assertive" U.S. foreign policy that seeks "to preserve the United States as the world leader" responsible for global order. That would call for "more military power than the Department of Defense base force ever could produce," the study said.

The Persian Gulf war began at 7 p.m. last Jan. 16 with a large-scale air assault against Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, where it was 3 a.m. Jan. 17. The White House announced: "The Liberation of Kuwait has begun." The fighting war ended 43 days later, but a year later its extraordinary military success and some of its accompanying objectives are still being debated. These articles explore issues and places that were prominent elements of the drama that captivated the world.

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