Defense

August 16, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia

Squeezed by deficits and a military strategy rendered obsolete by the end of the Cold War, President Bush has struggled for most of his tenure as commander-in-chief to reshape America's defenses and redefine the role of U.S. military power.

Only the first tentative steps have been taken, leaving much more to be done to link Mr. Bush's declared national security objectives -- deterring nuclear war and proliferation, fostering regional stability and fighting terrorism and drugs -- to clearly-stated strategies and the right mix of military people and hardware.

"There are dramatically different requirements for U.S. forces now, and there's an opportunity to change, to find new approaches and redesign the forces," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a non-partisan research group.

"But Bush and the Pentagon have plans that are still Cold War-like to some degree. All the forces they've planned are too heavy, too much in active duty. They're not going to be affordable and are not going to be necessary."

What Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney are implementing is a "base force" plan, conceived in 1990 before the Soviet Union collapsed. By 1995, active-duty military personnel will be cut to a pre-Korean war level of 1.64 million, or 521,000 troops fewer than in 1990. That means 12 active Army divisions instead of 18; 15 active tactical fighter wings instead of 24; and a naval fleet of 451 instead of 546.

The nation's whopping deficit and a budget deal with Congress compelled Mr. Bush to cut defense spending each year, and Mr. Cheney has begun to close nearly 500 foreign and about 125 domestic military bases. Last January, the administration abruptly abandoned the Seawolf submarine, B-2 Stealth bomber and other expensive, new, high-tech weapons projects; it already had canceled about 100 older weapons programs, including M1A1 tanks and aircraft.

Mr. Bush helped engineer a stunning reversal in the nuclear arms race, recognizing last summer that cuts could be achieved in warheads, missiles and battlefield weapons by unilateral reductions and reciprocal action by Russia. Both countries, which together control about 22,000 warheads, now intend to reduce each of their arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads by 2003.

There is an emerging bipartisan consensus that Mr. Bush still can afford to make deeper cuts in strategic and conventional forces without sacrificing military readiness. Also, roles and missions of the military services still must be reassessed to avoid costly duplication.

Even as congressional Democrats have been crying for larger overall cuts, however, they have sometimes rushed to save bases and defense contracts in their own districts.

But reducing force levels is only part of post-Cold War task that has bedeviled the president. A wide range of analysts, agreeing that many assumptions behind the president's "base force" are too vague, imprecise or unexplained, have raised the basic question: "What should the military be prepared to do"?

To answer this, Mr. Bush has not clearly differentiated legitimate national "concerns" -- such as regional stability in the Balkans -- from genuine "threats" that could trigger U.S. military responses, said John M. Collins, senior defense analyst at the Library of Congress. And priorities for military planning have not been well-defined, he said.

When events pushed him to the point of armed conflict, Mr. Bush has been clear and decisive. But even he has acknowledged how, soon after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990 and threatened to control half the world's oil supply, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told him: "Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly."

Indeed, history will show Mr. Bush to be a saber rattler who delivered on his threats, with a well-trained, well-equipped military at his command. He sent 23,000 troops to fight in Panama and 451,000 to wage war in Kuwait, both times relying on overwhelming force to ensure a swift victory with a minimum of U.S. casualties.

Even as Mr. Bush tried to reshape the military, he declared as national policy that future military conflicts will be won quickly with few casualties. Military officials say Mr. Bush was not being realistic, given cuts that have occurred since the gulf war.

"That's what the American people expect. We may have, unfortunately, been so successful in the last engagement that they will accept nothing less than that," a senior Army war planner said in an interview. "We may have set up false expectations."

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