ASPIN He Proposed Pentagon Cuts

Now He Has To Make Them Work

January 03, 1993|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Last Jan. 3, Rep. Les Aspin issued one of his famous press releases with a heading announcing: "Aspin To Develop Strategy For Defense In The New Era."

That was a tall order. Hundreds of civilians and military people in the Defense Department had been at work on such strategy and on reshaping armed forces, since before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

But the Wisconsin Democrat, chosen to be the next defense secretary, does not hide his considerable light under a bushel.

In barely two months, he was announcing what he thought the country could expect in the way of post-Cold War military threats and precisely what forces were needed to deal with them.

With the assistance of his House Armed Services Committee staff and the Congressional Research Service's defense experts, Aspin erected an elaborate analytical framework to justify specific five-year reductions in the combat formations of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, below those planned by the Bush administration.

Bill Clinton, campaigning for president, bought the main outlines of the Aspin ideas, echoing them in his few pronouncements on defense. Mr. Aspin's selection as defense secretary seemed foreordained.

Now, just ahead, lies the testing ground. Congressional committee chairmen can make speeches, issue studies and propose solutions. Defense secretaries must make decisions, in the presence of heavy, conflicting pressures, and see that they are carried out.

It is more than imaginable that Mr. Clinton's budget director-designate, Rep. Leon E. Panetta, the Californian who now chairs the House Budget Committee, will soon be telling the new president that his spending and deficit-cutting plans don't parse. Defense will have to take an even bigger hit than Mr.

Aspin has proposed and Mr. Clinton has largely accepted.

Mr. Aspin will not likely be able to defeat Mr. Panetta in the way that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger blew budget director David Stockman away at the start of the Reagan administration.

At the same time, the Aspin defense concept -- still a skeleton compared with the detailed Pentagon five-year plan -- will collide with the assumptions and assessments of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the individual services and the array of constituencies in Congress and around the country where the bases and industries are.

There is nothing unusual, of course, about a defense secretary being the bull's eye for competing interests. Mr. Aspin, so his friends say, wanted the job because he saw it as a sort of ultimate intellectual challenge in the post-Cold War era.

His methodology for arriving at military needs has been praised by some former officials, who say privately that they nonetheless disagree with some of his conclusions. For example, he argues that more force was sent to the gulf war than was used and therefore less force would be needed to meet a future Iraq-size military threat.

This overlooks, according to these critics, that Saddam Hussein could have overrun Saudi Arabia, instead of stopping in Kuwait, long before the huge U.S. (and allied) force got there. That would have made for a quite different, longer and larger war.

Mr. Aspin's argument that a politically salable military program requires precise definition of threats draws scorn from military men used to being dispatched to lead forces against threats no one expected.

In the end, the new defense chief and the current Pentagon leaders see approximately the same potential areas of danger -- the Middle East, Korea, Panama- or Grenada-like expeditions, humanitarian endeavors like that for the Kurds in northern Iraq after the gulf war and Somalia today.

But General Powell, like the civilians who will be leaving, argues strenuously on historical experience that "the threat is instability and being unprepared to handle a crisis or war that no one predicted or expected." He wants a considerable cushion and the capability to move fast and end conflict with minimum casualties.

Mr. Aspin says the defense cuts now in progress would save $43 billion by 1997 and the proposal he favors would save $91 billion. He would cut the forces to 1.4 million people, compared to the 1.6 million in the Bush plan.

Main elements of the Aspin proposal would cut the Bush plan to 15 active and reserve Army divisions from 18, 3 Marine divisions from 3 1/3 , 18 Air Force fighter wings from 26 and 340 Navy ships from 450. The Navy already is below the 450-ship goal, as it reduces submarines at a higher than previously planned rate.

Mr. Aspin, in best systems analysis fashion, has outlined other options for both smaller and larger forces. This is a time-honored way of focusing attention on the wisdom of one's preferred option, as those who have done similar exercises in the Pentagon point out.

Charles Corddry writes about defense and national security matters from the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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