Air power must be first in future, study says

June 23, 1993|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United States must base its future defense strategy on dominant air power, built up if necessary at the expense of reduced land and sea forces, according to a new study for the Pentagon made public yesterday.

Air forces are uniquely qualified to wage the sorts of major regional conflicts that may confront the United States and its allies in the post-Cold War era, the RAND report said.

The California-based think tank described a military technological revolution that will enable air power to move with blinding swiftness, even by the standards of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. It contended, for example:

"By the turn of the century, if provided with available technology, U.S. air power will be capable of stopping an attack force of over 8,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 aircraft in little more than a week."

The nation must continue to field joint air, land and sea forces in regional conflicts, RAND said. Air power cannot win all by itself.

"But the results of our analysis do indicate that the calculus has changed and air power's ability to contribute to the joint battle has increased," the report said.

At a press conference here, RAND experts said the reduced defense budget planned by the Clinton administration would be adequate if what they called the right decisions were made on air power.

That meant reducing sea and land forces if necessary to pay for modernized air power -- advanced aircraft, high technology weapons and sophisticated new command, control and intelligence equipment.

The report conceded that "a new approach to coping with spending cuts" would be needed, because in the past cuts have tended to be apportioned evenly across the services and their various military missions.

Defense officials, especially in the Air Force which ordered the study, have been widely briefed on the proposals, RAND said.

Fred Frostic, one of the authors, said the report had provided some of the "analytic underpinnings" for the current Defense Department strategic review that will bring about a reshaping of U.S. military forces. He acknowledged that RAND's proposals, heavily favoring air power modernization, had encountered resistance in some parts of the defense establishment. New departures usually do, he said philosophically.

In its emphasis on ensuring a qualitative edge for U.S. air power, the RAND report seemed in tune with the general views of Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Deputy Secretary William Perry.

As director of defense research in the Carter administration, Mr. Perry was a major force in pushing the weapons technology that showed up so well in the 1991 Gulf war.

The RAND study said the collapse of the Soviet Union vastly changed and reduced the kinds of military threats the United States could face.

But it emphasized that regional conflicts could pit this country against hostile forces with 6,000 to 10,000 armored vehicles, 500 to 1,000 combat planes and possibly ballistic missiles. Several countries can mount such forces and more will be able to in the future, RAND said.

The study concluded that, with concentration on air power, U.S. forces could manage concurrent crises in, say, the Persian Gulf area and Korea.

Even with smaller budgets and reduced forces, based chiefly in the United States, this country could "still plausibly plan to win one regional war while blunting aggression that takes place in another part of the globe," the report said. RAND stressed a conviction that the heavy-duty work would have to be done by land-based rather than naval air power.

Carrier-based aircraft could wage the first defensive actions. But after a day or two, the report said, land-based fighters and bombers would take on the "lion's share."

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