The Clinton Administration's New Military

September 05, 1993|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Clinton administration's post-Cold War defense scheme was announced appropriately in the same week that hurricane Emily roared along the Atlantic coast. In likening the two, a longtime Pentagon official remarked privately that both had high velocity winds but far less drastic results than expected.

Guided by a 13-page "public affairs plan" -- adequate for something on the scale of the Normandy invasion -- Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and sundry other top officials engaged in two days of television interviews, marathon press conferences, background briefings and speeches to hail the product.

Stay tuned, for this is just the beginning. Congress is scheduled to debate defense soon after Labor Day when it takes up military authorization bills for fiscal year 1994, which starts Oct. 1. The newly announced plans kick in mostly in the following year, but are sure to figure in the current debate and to keep the pot boiling thereafter.

Each new administration tries to put its own distinctive stamp on defense policy. The Clinton administration, and especially its defense secretary, saw a unique opportunity and heralded its work as the first post-Cold War review of military needs.

The outcome, Mr. Aspin told us Wednesday, will be "a force based on tomorrow's requirements, a lean, mobile, high-tech force" ready for the new regional dangers and other ambiguous demands that have supplanted the long, but now at last vanished, Soviet threat. "Incremental shifts" would no longer do; strategy, forces and budgets had to be rebuilt "from the bottom up."

Stripped of the verbiage and high-powered p.r., however, the Clinton-Aspin plan can be accurately described as incrementally changing the inherited Bush administration plan for a downsized "base force" to serve in the new era.

Air, land and sea forces are being reduced somewhat more than President George Bush had in mind in announcing his own post-Cold War plan in 1991. They probably also would have been if Mr. Bush had been re-elected. Budget squeezing, if nothing else, would have seen to that.

A Capitol Hill source, who is involved in analysis of the Clinton-Aspin plan, said it did not seem to make "any significant changes" in the blueprint of Mr. Bush and his defense secretary, Dick Cheney. The consistency was gratifying; the defense establishment is big, and course changes are gradual. It is also a fact that defense has been undergoing cuts since 1986.

There are two ways to look at the failure of the "bottom up" review to make the sort of drastic changes once expected and to call for larger cuts from the top down:

* The least flattering is that President Clinton retreated once more on an important military issue; and so, despite the cuts that in fact were made, there have been no complaints in military circles.

* More creditable is the supposition that Mr. Clinton and his defense secretary recognized that the post-Cold War world is rather more dangerous and puts more burdens on the Pentagon than they expected. For every critic who says defense is not being cut enough there is another who cites Somalia, Macedonia, Bosnia, North Korea, Iraq, etc., etc., and says to slow down the reductions.

The position staked out by General Powell in the week's briefings seems to support the second view. The general, who retires this month, said the Bush and Clinton plans had basically the same "strategy underpinning" and the military high command was "very comfortable with where we are" after the review.

This was the same General Powell who once said Mr. Aspin was "mistaken" in claiming the Bush plan did not reshape the forces for the new era. That was when Mr. Aspin was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and calling for deeper cuts than he now proposes. In those days, General Powell also derided Mr. Aspin's contention that forces could be neatly tailored to measurable threats, with unneeded arms discarded.

Documents handed out at press briefings on the new plan backed the Powell argument: "History shows that we frequently fail to anticipate the location and timing of aggression, even large-scale attacks against our interests." The general seemed satisfied that this point had sunk in.

The real key to the future plan is its insistence on a "mobile, high-tech force." Top Pentagon officials, such as Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry, look on the command and control systems and sensational weapons of the 1991 Persian Gulf war as just a beginning -- perhaps only a bare beginning.

On that score, a Pentagon document says: "New 'smart' and 'brilliant' munitions under development hold promise of dramatically improving the capabilities of U.S. air, ground and maritime forces to destroy enemy armored vehicles and halt invading ground forces, as well as destroy fixed targets at longer ranges, reducing exposure to enemy air defenses."

This kind of lethality -- long in research and development and now at hand -- can compensate for large cuts elsewhere. And such advances are now on the slate for all the services.

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

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