'Shift' poses a threat to U.S. might

Changes: New methods and new approaches by other nations mean the superiority of America's military is not guaranteed, analysts say.

April 25, 1999|By E. Thomas McClanahan

A DECADE AGO, Pentagon critics wondered whether all the high-cost military hardware bought during the 1980s would perform as expected. It did. As the Persian Gulf war moved toward its spectacular conclusion, the doubters were silenced.

Today, America's military superiority is unparalleled. In technology and training, our forces are well ahead of any potential adversary -- a position they are expected to hold for a decade or more.

But after that, the concerns begin to multiply.

The weapons deployed in the gulf were based on research and testing that occurred many years before. Today, a growing number of military analysts are worried that the Clinton administration might be doing too little to ensure America's lead is maintained.

The issue involves more than aggregate amounts of spending for research and development.

Before World War II, France spent more than Germany, but Germany spent more wisely. The Germans prepared for a war of mobility, while France relied more on fixed fortifications. The French even developed a superior tank, but German thinking -- expressed in a revolutionary fighting doctrine called "blitzkrieg" -- had been re-oriented for a war of rapid maneuver. France was overwhelmed in six weeks.

France was the victim of what military analysts call an "asymmetrical shift," a period when existing weapons and tactics are unexpectedly devalued by new weapons and new approaches. Another such period was the 1920s and '30s, when the aircraft carrier displaced the battleship as the preeminent source of naval power.

Today, even as the war in Serbia produces more displays of precision weapons, it's clear that a similar shift is under way. The earliest clues appeared in the Gulf War, in the form of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. These weapons were inaccurate, but their psychological and strategic impact was considerable.

Scud attacks on Israeli cities put pressure on Tel Aviv to retaliate, a move that would have driven Arab forces from the allied coalition. To foreclose that threat, military planners were forced to divert substantial air power to Scud hunts, most of which were unsuccessful. Although a few stationary launchers were destroyed, intelligence analysts were unable to confirm that a single mobile launcher had been hit.

Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the looming asymmetrical threat is most evident on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea has stockpiled missiles and has threatened to equip them with chemical warheads. These weapons are widely dispersed in caves. No reliable defense exists to defeat them.

At the same time, only a few ports and airfields are available to receive U.S. reinforcements. If war broke out, these ports and airfields would be high-priority targets for missiles possibly carrying weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, this is a scenario for a conflict with massive casualties.

Much of the concern over the spread of missile technology has emphasized the direct threat to U.S. territory. Little attention has been paid to a related problem that military planners call "access denial." Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, boiled the problem down to a what-if question: "What if the president said, 'Send in the Marines,' and they couldn't go?"

Roberts, a Kansas Republican, is chairman of a new Senate subcommittee created to examine a variety of "emerging threats," including access denial. The panel convened its first meeting last month, and one of those testifying was Krepinevich.

"Adversaries know they can't take us on directly by building an air force or a better army to defeat our tanks in open battle, so they're taking the indirect approach -- threatening the means by which we bring forces into an area," Krepinevich said in a telephone interview. "You have a situation where our traditional way of projecting power -- moving assets through ports and sustaining them from those locations -- may be increasingly at risk."

Policy-makers, Krepinevich said, face three options: build an effective missile defense, change the way forces are inserted into trouble spots, or accept that some deployments might "look more like Omaha Beach on D-Day than Desert Shield."

Krepinevich and others argue that a "revolution in military affairs" is profoundly changing the way wars will be fought, and that to stay ahead the Pentagon must undergo what amounts to a transformation.

The conflict in the Balkans offers an illustration of power-projection through forward deployment, as well as a couple of additional what-if questions: What if we couldn't base fighters in Italy or Apache helicop-ters in Albania? In the future, analysts say, U.S. forces will have to be able to operate farther from resupply points, which means they must have weapons that are lighter and more lethal. In addition, more weapons systems must be available that don't need foreign "access," such as the Missouri-based B-2 bomber.

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