Military's new role: police actions From aiding Kurds to guarding L.A., U.S. armed forces glimpse their future

December 02, 1992|By Richard H.P. Sia | Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With the Soviet nemesis gone, the U.S. military's future role is being shaped largely by its ability to conduct limited police actions, such as the one planned in famine-ravaged Somalia.

As military leaders plot what may be their largest operation ever in Africa, they are mindful that for the last 20 months they have dispatched, often reluctantly, troops, ships and planes on mostly unconventional missions in unlikely places.

These include creating safe havens for Iraqi Kurds, flying combat air patrols in Iraq, rescuing diplomats in Somalia, patrolling the Adriatic Sea, airlifting aid to Bosnia, providing security to riot-torn Los Angeles and bringing relief to storm-battered areas in Florida, Guam, Hawaii and Bangladesh.

The Somalia relief operation comes at a crucial moment for military leaders, who know they must break free from more than 40 years of Cold War thinking and stop viewing their troops only as combatants for an all-out war.

Military leaders already anticipate dramatic changes under President-elect Bill Clinton, who wants to re-examine the role of each military service and assure they have the right mix of personnel and hardware for new threats and crises.

Mr. Clinton has come under mounting pressure to devise a more flexible defense policy that gives a higher priority to limited bTC military action in areas where no obvious national security interests are threatened.

Influential Democrats close to Mr. Clinton say that the armed services, despite their recent willingness to help ensure the safe delivery of food and relief supplies to starving Somalis, have not substantially changed the way they view their roles, missions and budgets.

"It seems to me we really are caught increasingly between the all-or-nothing kind of posturing," Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently. "I think the United States over the years has not really thought through limited types of action."

"If you look at Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Florida, what you've got is the Pentagon resisting and a lot of people agitating" for using force or military personnel in a crisis, said Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "It's time to go back and ask the question about what the American public wants the military to do.

"What the country faces is a philosophical question about . . . the use of military power in this new era," Mr. Aspin said.

It is a question that has preoccupied military leaders and policy-makers in the Bush administration ever since the end of the Persian Gulf War last year.

They have struggled over public demands for action in northern Iraq after television broadcasts depicted the brutal Iraqi oppression of the Kurds. They have felt domestic and international pressure to help save the women and children caught in the vicious crossfire in Bosnia.

And they live with bitter memories of Vietnam and Beirut, two limited "police actions" that turned into quagmires.

But Mr. Aspin suggests that many future crises will resemble the Somalian emergency, where the lessons of Vietnam won't always apply.

"It's a brand new era," said the Wisconsin Democrat who, like Mr. Nunn, has been mentioned as a candidate for defense secretary in the Clinton administration. "Suddenly you tug on somebody's heart strings and they want to reach for the military option.

"They look at the pictures of starving kids in Somalia and they say, 'Jesus, let's get some C-5s [cargo planes] up there. Even the most anti-use-of-force liberal wants to use the military to help deliver aid to Somalia."

In the last week, the proposed use of Marines and other ground forces in Somalia has received far more support among senior military leaders than suggestions by Mr. Clinton and others for more aggressive action to aid besieged civilians in Bosnia.

But in both cases, the military has tended to be overly cautious in its preliminary planning, adhering to a post-Vietnam War doctrine requiring overwhelming numbers of troops and clear-cut military objectives.

As many as 30,000 troops have been envisioned in some scenarios for Somalia, where a mix of Marines and Army airborne troops would ensure the safe delivery of food and relief supplies to some 1.5 million Somalis. Military officials continued to doubt this week that the United Nations would authorize sending a force that large.

To protect aid deliveries and stop the fighting in Bosnia, the military's joint staff estimated over the summer that a field army of 400,000 troops would be needed, but even that would not be enough to stop the carnage quickly, said Army Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, assistant to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Even during the gulf war, which has been celebrated by military analysts as a textbook air-land battle that will never be repeated, Central Command's request for four aircraft carriers was augmented by two more at the behest of General Powell.

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