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Free Reign for the Sole Superpower?

by Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Robert Leavitt

Throughout the early months of his tenure, Defense Secretary Les Aspin pledged to reinvent the Pentagon in light of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aspin posed the leading questions last May: "We have to ask ourselves what do we need a defense against in this new era. What is it for? Who are we going to fight?"

His answers are now in. According to Aspin's Bottom Up Review (BUR), released in early September, the Pentagon must be equipped for rapid intervention, anywhere in the world, against all manner of threats large and small. Notwithstanding the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the new era Defense Department will require a military structure two-thirds as large as US forces during the Cold War. Secretary Aspin's five year plan will consume more than $1.2 trillion of the nation's treasure. In 1999, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States will be spending approximately $240 billion on defense each year - 80% as high as the Cold War average.

Beyond simply preserving the bulk of America's Cold War assets, the BUR proposes to strengthen rapid global intervention capabilities by placing greater emphasis on aircraft carriers, Marines, long-range attack aircraft and missiles, and fast air- and sealift capabilities. In part, this is supposed to compensate for a reduction in the number of US troops stationed overseas - down from 500,000 to 250,000. The greater emphasis on quick-response power projection also reflects a perceived change in the character of wars, which according to Secretary Aspin will increasingly be "come as you are" affairs.

The BUR justifies its proposals in both negative and positive terms. It foresees "an era of new dangers," involving weapons proliferation, large-scale aggression by regional powers, civil wars, state-sponsored terrorism, subversion of friendly governments, and a reversal of trends toward greater democracy. However, the Administration and the Pentagon also see greater freedom for the United States to utilize its military muscle in a world without a superpower competitor. In late September the President and several top foreign policy officials asserted in a series of speeches that when, where, and how the United States intervenes internationally is increasingly a matter of choice. Earlier, Secretary Aspin had complained at his confirmation hearings that the Weinberger/Powell "all or nothing" doctrine of military use had "set the threshold for using force too high."

This expansive conception of the role of force lies at the heart of the Pentagon's new look. Not only might the United States intervene to defend its perceived interests around the world, it will look to use force for peacekeeping, nation-building, and humanitarian purposes as well. To develop policy for such interventions the Administration has created a new department of Democracy and Human Rights in the Pentagon. However, the early tests of the new interventionism - the former-Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Haiti - underscore the constraints on ambitious plans. The broad opposition to continuing US involvement in Somalia reveals that where important US strategic or material interests are not widely perceived, support for intervention cannot withstand even a small number of US casualties.

US interests, even narrowly defined, are arguably much greater in Bosnia, but so are the prospects for more numerous US casualties. In contemplating the dispatch of troops to enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia, President Clinton has set conditions relating to funding, public and congressional support, command and control, and a withdrawal timetable that make intervention very unlikely.

Another form of power projection that fascinates Secretary Aspin is small-scale bombing raids for purposes of punishment or coercion - such as the June attack on Iraq in response to an alleged assassination attempt against former President Bush. Such raids are less demanding and risky than full-blown intervention, and Aspin hopes that the further development of long-range precision weapons will improve the prospects for conducting them without US or local civilian casualties. But no degree of targeting accuracy can alter the fact that bombing raids are a blunt instrument of foreign policy. They can compel temporary and half-hearted compliance, but never reliable cooperation. Moreover, the Pentagon will never possess sufficiently accurate information and reliable control of its weapons to preclude entirely the killing of innocents. Even a single wrongful death can have important and unexpected adverse repercussions - as in the 1986 raid against Libya, which killed Qaddafi's young daughter, or the recent Baghdad raid, which claimed a regionally-renowned poet.

Although the demise of Soviet power reduces some of the risks of using force, there is no reason to believe that military instruments will prove any more effective politically in the coming era than in the past. Moreover, the public and Congress appear more hesitant than ever about freely committing US troops and resources to overseas adventures.

But even if Secretary Aspin's expansive vision of military activism dies in Mogadishu this will have little or no effect on the Pentagon's assessment of military requirements. The new modes of intervention are politically ambitious. They do not, however, require large military forces and they have not played a central role in the setting of overall force size and modernization goals.

To justify recommended force levels the Bottom Up Review resorts instead to a variant of the worst-case scenario planning that dominated the Cold War Pentagon. The difference is that global war with the Soviets has been replaced by the threat of two simultaneous wars with major regional powers. As the Administration sees it, the United States must be prepared to fight and win two concurrent Desert Storm-scale conflicts anywhere in the world, with little advance warning, no significant help from allies, and very limited use of reserve combat units.

The two-war requirement unravels almost as soon as it is stated clearly. For one thing, large-scale intervention in major regional conflicts will always entail great cost and push public tolerance to its limits. For this reason the United States will not attempt to intervene on a large scale just "anywhere."

There are only two regions outside Europe where broadly perceived threats, interests, and alliances converge to make large-scale intervention seem plausible: Korea and the Arabian peninsula. But as the playing field for major warfare shrinks from "anywhere in the world" to these two regions, so does the associated military requirement. In Korea, the South is a good match for the North. In the Middle East, the strength of the Gulf states, buttressed by massive US arms sales, is growing, while other US allies in the region (Israel, Egypt, Turkey) are already significant military powers. The area also offers the best conditions for applying America's military trump card: air power.

The BUR also assumes that the United States will have little advance warning of either conflict and will have to intervene alone. On the one hand, these assumptions dramatically boost the perceived need for large active duty forces and for strategic lift. On the other hand, when the likely probabilities associated with all the assumptions and qualifications that define Aspin's worst-case scenario are multiplied together, it becomes clear that the Secretary has geared force planning to a highly improbable eventuality.

Furthermore, the war planning scenarios involve much smaller challenges than in the Cold War period. Today, no country on the roster of "threat states" (i.e., Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea) can muster one-twentieth the military power of the former Warsaw Pact. The capacity of these states to project and sustain military offensives is even less impressive. And without the patronage of the former Soviet Union, their capability is more likely to shrink than grow. Lest we forget, the Gulf War was a rout of historic proportions against one of the more powerful of the "threat" nations.

Nonetheless, when choosing among strategies for resolving its pivotal two-war scenario, the BUR settles on the most ambitious: prompt and near-simultaneous offensive operations. A less extravagant alternative - even accepting the two-war framework - would rely more on reserve combat units and fight the wars serially in defense-offense stages. This approach could save the United States some $35 billion per year in weapons modernization and active force structure. On the downside, such a strategy could add two months to a two-war contingency that the Pentagon currently hopes to win in less than eight months. Although more time can mean greater risk, the risks must be kept in perspective. Even in a two-war contingency the strategic balance, from beginning to end, would overwhelmingly favor the United States. Today's nightmare scenario is not remotely comparable to that of the Cold War, when a significant delay or withdrawal along the European "central front" might have meant the loss of the continent.

Aspin's worst-case, two-war scenario is simply too improbable to justify the lavish investment in the "no-risk, quick-win" capability the Pentagon desires. Even if the United States decides that preparation for a two-war contingency is a national priority, more judicious military planning can save at least $300 billion over the next decade while adding only a small degree of manageable risk. Such savings should make running that risk well worthwhile.

If the Pentagon continues to win assent to its extravagant plans the reasons will have nothing to do with strategic requirements. The disjuncture between planned military capabilities and reasonable need reveals the influence of economic and institutional interests. Given the President's political vulnerability on defense issues, especially after the aborted effort to reform the armed forces' policy on homosexuality, challenging the Pentagon brass is low on his priority list. Without a political consensus on economic stimulus or a strong conversion program in place, the current downsizing of the military has already proven very disruptive in many communities. Much of the potential congressional leadership for deeper cuts is muted, as liberals from the Northeast and California grapple with serious job losses in their districts.

But leaving in place an oversized military reflects a deeper problem than misguided budgetary priorities and a continuing raid on the public purse. Five years after Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the withdrawal of the Red Army from Europe, four years after the fall of the Wall, and more than two years after the final collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has yet to define a military policy appropriate to the new era. A fascination with finding new uses for old tools has eclipsed the search for new instruments of security policy. Too much energy has gone into devising threat scenarios worthy of a big military, too little into determining how the United States can support the evolution of effective regional and global security institutions.

Of course, more than innovation and political will is required. The United States and its allies must also take the initiative to redirect their security resources into new security initiatives. Today, the Pentagon absorbs in a week a sum equivalent to that spent by the United Nations in a year of worldwide peacekeeping activities. In a month the Pentagon spends a sum equivalent to all the currently pledged grant aid to Russia. Despite its rhetoric about the unique opportunities of the post-Soviet period, the Bottom Up Review offers little hope that the United States will soon champion and underwrite a different way of doing things. There should be little wonder that the new era already seems to be conforming to the conventional wisdom of the old.

Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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