Clinton wants lean, high-tech armed forces Planned overhaul over 5 years keeps lid on big changes

September 02, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, confronting post-Cold War strategic and fiscal realities, intends to keep U.S. military forces strong enough to fight two wars at once but lean enough to deliver his promised defense budget cuts, Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced yesterday.

Mr. Aspin laid out a 5-year defense plan, approved by Mr. Clinton Monday, that retains a relatively high level of military forces at home and overseas while requiring a heavier reliance on smart weapons and "leading edge" technology to defeat potential adversaries, especially North Korea and a resurgent Iraq or Iran.

While the Clinton administration portrayed the blueprint as a major overhaul of the armed forces, several Pentagon officials shrugged off the rhetoric and noted that the plan calls for only modest changes. They detected the strong hand of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military leaders who sought to minimize turbulence in the already shrinking defense establishment.

"We made out like bandits," exulted one senior Navy official.

At a Pentagon briefing, Mr. Aspin described the administration's defense strategy and its 5-year plan to reshape the U.S. military as the result of the most sweeping review of global threats, U.S. military capabilities and national security requirements since the "There's still in the world today a handful of bad guys. . . . who can threaten American interests, U.S. allies and American friends, so we need a defense establishment that can deal with those kinds of threats," he said.

The Clinton plan would move to a military force structure of 12 aircraft carriers, 16 active and reserve Army divisions and 20 active and reserve Air Force wings by 1999. The Navy fleet would be cut to 346 ships, down from the current 443.

The plan also sets Marine Corps strength at 174,000 men and women, 5,000 fewer than the current level but 15,000 more than the level set by the Bush administration blueprint.

By the end of the century, the nation will have a "lean, mobile, high-tech force," said Mr. Aspin, who initiated the administration's "bottom up review" of the nation's defense needs in March. "We'll have a force based on tomorrow's requirements . . . to protect Americans against the real dangers they face in this new era."

Despite his review team's extensive work, the new defense strategy closely resembles the one Mr. Clinton inherited from President George Bush, who shifted the military's focus from the Cold War to regional conflicts, humanitarian aid missions and peacekeeping operations.

General Powell, who joined Mr. Aspin in announcing the Clinton plan, acknowledged as much to reporters, saying that the new plan's "strategic underpinning is quite similar" to the Bush administration's post-Cold War blueprint for a "base force." The Clinton plan "builds on the work that went into the base force," he said.

A senior military planner hastened to point out that Mr. Aspin and General Powell paid much less attention to Russia as a potential opponent than did Bush administration officials, who "still had an eye over [their] shoulder at a possible resurgent Russia."

In many respects, Mr. Clinton's defense plan hews to his campaign promises and the budget he unveiled in March, including its support for V-22 Osprey aircraft development and a revamped ballistic missile defense program that focuses mainly

on protecting troops from missiles.

Senior pentagon officials said the plan will cost at least $13 billion more than Mr. Clinton has proposed spending on defense over the next five years. But they said Mr. Aspin planned to make up the shortfall by shifting funds within the president's $1.2 trillion defense budget to avoid having to ask for more money.

Over the next five years, Mr. Clinton's proposed defense budget over is $127 billion less than what the Bush administration had proposed.

The defense plan also cuts 160,000 active-duty personnel by 1999, reducing military strength to 1.4 million troops -- the level proposed by Mr. Clinton in the presidential campaign. The president has already asked Congress to cut the force level down to 1.62 million next year, so the pace of personnel cuts might actually slow down between 1995 and 1999, a Pentagon spokesman said.

About 100,000 troops would remain in Europe -- the level endorsed by Mr. Clinton in the campaign -- and there would be no change in current deployments in East Asia, where 98,000 troops are stationed.

But in other ways, the military appeared to wield considerable influence in administration planning.

The Clinton plan only cuts one of the 13 aircraft carriers the Navy will have by the end of the year, instead of two, as preferred by senior administration officials. One of the remaining 12 will be used as a training ship, with 20 percent of its permanent crew drawn from the reserves, but it could be deployed overseas on short notice, General Powell said.

The plan also calls for a third Seawolf nuclear attack submarine -- one more than had been planned -- for about $1.8 billion, even though the vessel's Cold War mission has disappeared. The Navy pressed hard for it as a way to keep in business General Dynamic's Electric Boat division in Groton, Conn.

Senior Pentagon officials acknowledged that another nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will be built to preserve the assembly lines at the nation's only other shipyard capable of building nuclear-powered vessels, Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

But one senior official said that the Clinton administration was poised to cancel the $32 billion MILSTAR communications satellite program.

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