Congress likely to challenge Pentagon plan

February 18, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- By spelling out potential foreign conflicts that might draw U.S. forces into combat, the Bush administration is headed for confrontation with a skeptical Congress over national security assumptions at the end of the Cold War, analysts and congressional aides said yesterday.

In recent months, congressional leaders like Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have pressed the Pentagon to provide its analysis of specific threats to U.S. security in coming years, but the Pentagon leadership has declined.

When Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent their 1993 fiscal year budget request to Congress last month, General Powell said in an accompanying "national military strategy" document that "the real threat we now face is the threat of the unknown, the uncertain."

With the disclosure by the New York Times yesterday of internal Pentagon documents detailing seven Pentagon "scenarios" for future foreign conflicts, Congress now has a working understanding of the underlying assumptions of Pentagon spending plans until the end of the decade.

The hypothetical conflicts include an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; a North Korean attack on South Korea; simultaneous assaults by Iraq and North Korea; coups involving U.S. citizens or vital interests in Panama and the Philippines; an attack on Lithuania by Russia, and the emergence of a new and aggressive superpower by 2001.

The scenarios, which are described as "illustrative" and "not predictive," are used internally by the military services to examine their needs and to provide the underpinning for annual budget requests to maintain levels of forces and weapons to support worldwide U.S. military and political aims.

As such, they become administration policy, although the scenarios themselves may not be specifically approved by the president.

Although the Pentagon controls the war scenarios as part of its planning process, Congress controls the financing for forces and weapons through the military budget.

The ultimate test of the Pentagon's view of potential conflict in the world thus is whether it will sell on Capitol Hill.

Some scenarios will draw criticism and others are likely to find support, analysts said.

A member of the House Armed Services staff said yesterday that the prospect of Iraq, for example, rebuilding its military and invading both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in this decade "really strains credulity" and that a less-intense Persian Gulf scenario might be more appropriate for force planning.

"We watch Iraq solely on a nuclear proliferation basis," the expert said, adding that planning for a contingency response in Panama or the Philippines seemed more sensible. "Any force has got to be able to deal with that."

A Pentagon official said that Mr. Cheney presented Congress with his vision of a "base force" military of 1.6 million members in August 1990 and, now, with the end of the Cold War, that he was apparently developing new war scenarios to justify that force.

The base-force concept called for reducing the "force structure" of the Cold War military by 25 percent and then modernizing it with a new generation of high-technology weapons.

But after an initial budget savings between now and the middle of the decade, military budgets would have to grow by tens of billions of dollars a year to keep up with Mr. Cheney's menu of forces and weapons, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Several military experts who work on Capitol Hill said yesterday that the major issue for Congress was whether to accept the Pentagon's view that the military ought to be large enough to fight two major regional wars simultaneously, in the Persian Gulf and Korea.

One expert asked, "If during the Cold War we did not have to worry about fighting Iraq and North Korea simultaneously, why do we have to worry about it now when the major adversary has disappeared?"

A Senate staff member said General Powell has been making public statements indicating that the military did not see a need to plan for major and simultaneous regional contingencies.

This expert said Congress was likely to seek either copies of the scenario documents or to extract detailed information about them from administration witnesses.

With the diminution of major military threats in the world, some members of Congress also are reluctant to cut too deeply or too quickly into military programs that provide jobs in their districts.

Whatever the impact, as one House staffer put it, "There are a lot of people up here who want to get this debate on a sound analytical footing to talk about specific threats."

Disclosure of the scenarios "makes it awfully tough for them not to," he added.

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