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Military makeover: Fight two wars at once? That's old thinking

Elaine M. Grossman
Boston Globe 7 January 2001

Last year, Wesley Clark faced a nightmare every US military commander dreads. After President Clinton directed the four-star general in March 1999 to launch a war against Serbia, Clark was informed that many of the aircraft and ships he needed for his campaign would not be available.

Instead, he was told, they were being held in reserve for the unlikely possibility of hostilities erupting in Korea or the Persian Gulf. ''But you're already in a war here,'' the Army general protested to top military decision-makers.

What Clark experienced firsthand was the clash of two strategic visions for the US military: one that jealously husbands forces for hypothetical major wars, and another that actively uses uniformed personnel to fight wars and enforce peace in places few Americans have heard of before.

The 11 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been marked by the pull and tug between these two competing priorities, with Kosovo the latest case in point.

It will be up to George W. Bush to resolve the conflict in strategy, and redefine how wars are fought.

Indeed, as he announced his selection of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, the president-elect declared that one of Rumsfeld's first tasks will be to ''challenge the status quo inside the Pentagon'' and develop a strategy for forces ''equipped for warfare of the 21st century.''

The seeds of a new military strategy were planted well before the presidential election. Last fall, General Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was already putting the final touches on a stack of 5-by-8-inch briefing cards presaging the next commander in chief's own words - and calling for a revamped military to meet the radically different challenges of a new century.

With US forces committed to several peacekeeping and humanitarian missions around the globe, says Shelton, the Pentagon cannot afford to maintain its almost singular focus on preparing to fight two big wars against Iraq and North Korea in overlapping time frames.

Not only does that strategy tie up too many resources, it gives short shrift to growing new threats on the horizon, Shelton will warn. Those might include helping Colombia free itself from the grip of guerrillas backed by drug cartels; de-escalating a conflict between nuclear-capable neighbors Pakistan and India; protecting American commerce from wholesale attacks on its information infrastructure; and defending the US homeland from attack by weapons of mass destruction.

''You could wake up tomorrow and have any of four major wars in Asia'' alone that could attract US military involvement, says Richard Armitage, a Bush campaign adviser and contender for the Pentagon's number two slot.

''We're in what I would now call a very turbulent strategic pause,'' explains Marine Corps Major General Robert Magnus. ''There are lots of wolves outside the gates but there's no Soviet Union. The threats to America's survival and its vital interests [are] much less obvious today than in 1990.''

In briefing Bush and his seasoned national security team, Shelton will acknowledge the military has not done enough to prepare for the ''wolves outside the gates.'' The Pentagon is spending so much money simply maintaining and repairing aging equipment that it has had to repeatedly put off buying new weapons. Just like an old car, the longer and harder aging military equipment is used, the more it breaks down.

Jacques Gansler, until last week the Pentagon's top buying official, calls this ''Catch 22 '' situation a ''death spiral'' that devours more dollars with each passing year. Last fall, the military chiefs told Congress they need at least $50 billion more each year if they are to continue the current rate of operations abroad, remain ready for major wars, and transform their forces to surmount future threats. That's on top of the current $300 billion given annually to defense, which already accounts for more than half of all the government's annual discretionary spending.

But few serious observers believe that with the Cold War long gone, the public has much appetite for siphoning funds from priorities like Social Security and prescription drugs for seniors to feed the Pentagon's seemingly insatiable appetite, particularly in light of Bush's promised tax cut.

''Something is going to have to give,'' says retired Vice Admiral John LaPlante, formerly a top adviser to the Joint Chiefs. ''There just isn't money to have it both ways anymore.''

LaPlante's observation is backed up by the Pentagon's own readiness reports. Last spring, the Defense Department told Congress that shortfalls in some critical war-fighting capabilities raise ''strategic concern'' about the ability to adequately fight even ''11/2'' overlapping wars, short of the two-war standard still officially expected of US forces.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the question would arise: Should the national military strategy continue to revolve around two major wars?

As defense officials launch their sweeping 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, a search has begun for new, more adaptable approaches to fit a wider range of priorities. For example, resources could dictate cutting back the force-sizing standard to something like 11/2 wars.

''The question the new administration may want to take on is whether the way we define that [major war] challenge today ... is really the right answer and whether there are alternatives to that, '' says Andrew Hoehn, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Pentagon planners might also assume US forces will have greater advance warning of major wars and thus could maintain a lower readiness footing, Hoehn says.

''The whole idea of [major wars] in separate boxes may not be correct,'' says Dov Zakheim, a former defense official who, until the election, served as a Bush campaign adviser and member of a bipartisan panel exploring options for a new military strategy. ''Maybe there's a continuum of threats that we have to think about. Maybe what we need to do is think about the different capabilities [required for] different kinds of contingencies.''

No matter how it is settled, the next strategy cannot be developed in a vacuum, artificially removed from budget constraints, defense insiders say. ''Strategy is not a shaper of forces,'' asserts longtime Pentagon gadfly Franklin Spinney, a Defense Department tactical aircraft analyst speaking solely on his own behalf. Military strategists would have the public believe ''you can draw this global picture and then make everything fit to it,'' he says. But limited resources make that impossible.

In fact, the service's top representatives to the Pentagon's quadrennial review, now under way, yearn for a new strategy to validate their expenditures. Each service has packaged a slick pitch for the incoming defense secretary, Congress, and the public on why it is uniquely well-suited for this century's military missions.

For decades, defense dollars have been split the same way among the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. In the current zero-sum game, an increase for one will almost surely come at the expense of another. Self-preservation motivates fierce interservice lobbying.

The new president and his top deputies will hear these arguments from the competing services:

Army: The Army last year launched a 30-year effort aimed at transforming its heavy forces to become more capable of getting to the fight faster and, once there, moving with speed and agility. The metamorphosis should allow the service's 482,000 troops to become more effective across a much wider array of missions, from small-scale humanitarian efforts to all-out war, says Army Brigadier General Lynn Hartsell.

Air Force: Today's military plans still assume more than a million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will be needed if the nation goes to war. Why not ''change the manner in which we conduct those conflicts,'' using fewer forces and capitalizing instead on the ''smart'' weapons demonstrated against Iraq and Serbia, says Air Force Brigadier General David Deptula. Precision weapons could allow the United States to fight multiple wars ''with fewer resources, at less cost and with fewer casualties,'' he contends.

Navy: The Navy prizes its 300 ships for their ability to project American military power around the globe in peacetime as well as in war. This ''forward presence,'' says Rear Admiral Joseph Sestak, helps prevent war by signaling potential bad guys that the United States will defend its interests around the globe - with force if necessary. If conflict erupts, Navy ships will aim firepower inland and ease the entry of the other services into the battle space, he says.

Marine Corps: Though the smallest US military service, the corps has needed little makeover for the 21st century. It has long prided itself on the versatility of each Marine, who may be handing out food to starving refugees one moment and fighting a high-intensity battle the next, says Magnus. ''I would rather have a tool that did more'' than just drop bombs or lob artillery, he declares. ''I want a hammer that can build a barn as well as take one down.''

Who's right? ''No one has a magic answer,'' says Spinney. ''No service knows what's best. [The defense secretary's staff] certainly doesn't know what's best. And so what we need is an exploratory process to find out what's best.'' For that to happen, he says, Bush must ''exhibit real leadership, particularly in this cynical age,'' when it is hard to ''tell the difference between what we are trying to do and what is the right thing to do.''

Gansler, the Pentagon's buying czar, said breaking out of the ''death spiral'' in military spending will require actions that ''are both unpopular and extremely difficult'' but about which we have no choice. It could require scrapping current plans to buy hundreds of billions of dollars in new equipment and instead taking a more penny-pinching approach.

Rumsfeld, who served before as defense secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, is well aware of the challenges facing him. ''It is clearly not a time at the Pentagon for presiding or calibrating modestly,'' he said at the Dec. 28 Washington press conference held to announce his selection. ''We are in a new national security environment. We do need to be arranged to deal with the new threats, not the old ones.''

Yet the price to build a national missile defense and protect US satellites in space - two of Rumsfeld's top priorities - could alone top $100 billion. Squaring those objectives with the day-to-day costs of being the world's only superpower will not come easily.

A new national military strategy is expected by June.

This article was sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 1/7/2001. © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

Elaine M. Grossman, "Military makeover: Fight two wars at once? That's old thinking," January 2001

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