Evisceration of the Pentagon Appears to Be on Hold

March 22, 1992|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY | CHARLES W. CORDDRY,Charles W. Corddry writes from the Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun on defense issues.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Four developments in a week's time have further borne out predictions of turmoil and instability in the wake of the Cold War, and warnings against pell-mell demobilization of defenses:

* In Brussels, the North Atlantic Alliance gave its first, and possibly fateful, consideration to using NATO forces to back peace-making efforts in the fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus.

* A North Korean ship docked in a re-arming Iran's port of Bandar Abbas with what was thought to be a load of Scud-C missiles -- longer-range versions of Scuds that Iraq used in the Gulf war. It escaped challenge by U.S. Navy ships.

* U.S. military leaders continued planning for strikes against Iraqi nuclear and missile facilities, uncovered by U.N. inspectors, in case President Bush orders them.

* Terrorists bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Israeli retribution is virtually certain; where and when are not.

These are the sorts of regional, nationalistic, ethnic and terrorist threats that were forecast as the superpower confrontation ended with the death of the Soviet Union.

''The collapse of communism does not mean the end of danger.'' That was written by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in a statement of his defense positions published last month by the Reserve Officers Association. ''A new set of threats in an even less stable world will force us, even as we restructure our defenses, to keep our guard up,'' he cautioned.

Though it was necessarily rather general, Mr. Clinton's prescription could have been written in the Pentagon without much change. It very likely reflected the influence of Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and sits on the Armed Services Committee. The point here is that the most likely Democratic presidential nominee is staking out defense positions far from those of the party's most liberal House members, already in retreat.

With Speaker Thomas S. Foley behind him, Chairman Les Aspin of the House Armed Services Committee has laid down defense proposals for next year that make modest cuts in the Bush-administration proposals. His plan is probably closer to the Pentagon's than officials there are ready to acknowledge. So, for a variety of reasons, including impact on the economy as well as the threats cited by both the administration and Mr. Clinton, the once-expected ransacking of the Pentagon seems to be on hold.

Attacks a-plenty are still forthcoming, of course, with demands for ''restructured'' military forces, which means smaller ones, and cuts in the ''bloated'' defense budget. Mr. Aspin, in truth, wants smaller forces, but not really a great deal smaller, and his proposed money cuts are a few billion dollars, say, about $7.6 billion off a presidential request for $267.6 billion for fiscal 1993.

Restructuring has in fact been going on since 1990, including during the Gulf war in 1991. Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat chairing the Armed Services Committee, has reckoned that, on present course, the defense establishment is to see a reduction of 2 million people -- in active and reserve forces, civilian employees and defense industry -- in a few years' time. The active-duty forces alone are en route down from 2.1 million men and women to a projected 1.6 million in 1995. Mr. Aspin would take off another 200,000.

The five-year (1993-1997) defense plan, as given Congress in January would cost $1.35 trillion. Mr. Bush had shaved $50 billion from last year's projection of the cost. It is a measure of how little subtraction the Democrats now have in mind that Mr. Aspin's calculations would take off another $40 billion or so, and Mr. Clinton's, about $50 billion. These are far less than the kinds of cuts talked about earlier in some segments of Congress.

The real defense issue nowadays is not whether to carry out deep cuts in manpower and money -- these have been under way for some time -- but how speedily to do it and where to level off. Historically, the nation ''has not done very well'' in demobilizing after wars and staying ready for future crises, Maj. Gen. Daniel R. Schroeder, one of the Army's top planners, remarked in a recent interview. He was thinking, for example, of the sad state of the small force pushed into the Korean war, with heavy casualties, at the outset in June 1950.

What military leaders now are urging boils down to this:

* In human terms, the forces are being drawn down about as fast as they can be if the cuts at home and abroad are to be orderly and personnel treated decently. The Army, for example, is returning 5,000 soldiers a month from Europe, General Schroeder said, and at a given moment has 2,000 children ''in the pipeline,'' moving from school in Europe ''to a very different -- school'' back here.

* In national-interest terms, the plea is to stay on the present course for cutting and reshaping the forces over the years to 1995 and have a new assessment then.

Interestingly, Governor Clinton cited substantially the same ''threats'' heard from defense planners -- turmoil in the former Soviet Union and the possible rise of an aggressive Russia, spread of mass-destruction weapons, tension in Korea and the Mideast and risk of terrorist attacks on Americans, and nationalist and ethnic rivalries.

Favorable trends and arms-control progress might lead to cuts beyond those he proposed, Mr. Clinton said, but there should not now be a commitment to ''specific deeper cuts 10 years from now.''

''The world is changing quickly,'' he said, ''and we must retain our ability to react to potential threats.''

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.