Atlantic vs. Pacific: US military planners rethink priorities

For the first time since early United States involvement in World War II, American military planners are wrestling with the question, ``Which comes first with us, the Atlantic or the Pacific, Europe or Asia?'' Since Europe was then the only highly industrialized region other than North America, it did not take planners long to opt for an Atlantic and Europe-first strategy.

But as early as 1961, economic development in Asia and the Pacific had reached the point that the Kennedy administration decided the US should be prepared to fight a major war in both the Atlantic and the Pacific while sustaining a ``half war'' in the third world. As it turned out, the ``half war'' in Vietnam drained US military resources worldwide.

The Nixon administration tried to avoid the issue by retreating to the Eisenhower strategy, in which US Pacific allies were to provide land forces with the US providing mainly air and naval support. At least during its first three years, the Carter administration sought to solve the post-Vietnam military budget dilemma by reverting to a Europe-first strategy. President Ford, sounded a discordant note, warning that US trade with Asia and the Pacific had begun to exceed US trade with Europe.

As early as the 1950s, writers in US professional military journals indicated an uneasiness over the Soviets' ability to force the US to counter principal areas of Soviet strength, in Europe and the Persian Gulf, while ignoring their principal area of vulnerability in East Asia and the Pacific.

This Soviet vulnerability derives from the sparse population of the region, its almost total dependency on the European Russian heartland via the trans-Siberian railroad, severe climate, and lack of internal communications. These problems hinder the Soviets' ability to move forces from one threatened location to another; superior US sea power could move rapidly to any point on the perimeter. In addition, the center of Soviet power in Asia around Vladivostok is situated on territory in dispute with China. Twenty-seven Soviet divisions are deployed to protect that maritime area.

American military writers have argued that the relative ease of moving US forces in the US Pacific Northwest and Alaska could be a powerful deterrent to Soviet adventurism anywhere by occupying Soviet forces guarding the Soviet Far East.

According to a senior US Navy planner, these ideas have been adopted by the Pacific Fleet, a major participant in the US strategic equation, with support in other parts of the Navy and Pentagon hierarchy.

The catalyst is the freeze in US defense spending. In effect, the Reagan administration resurrected the two-and-a-half war strategy of the Kennedy administration and attempted to fund it. But further increases in the defense budget are unlikely. Although Pacific-oriented Navy planners have not advanced the highly charged idea publicly, their principal target for savings is the large US Army deployment in Europe.

By no means do all top Navy leaders support this view. Adm. Carlisle A.H. Trost, chief of naval operations, continues to defend a primarily European commitment for the Navy.

The Pacific Fleet, meanwhile, has taken dramatic action to exploit the perceived Soviet vulnerability in the Pacific. The US Third Fleet has conducted major exercises in the north Pacific for several years. These maneuvers and the stationing of a US aircraft carrier on the northwest US coast is designed as a clear signal to the Soviets that the next target could be Soviet territory only a few hundred miles distant.

Adm. James A. Lyons Jr., former commander in chief of all US forces in the Pacific region, has come to believe that in the event of war ``we have the wherewithal in the Pacific to take the Soviets out of the equation.''

Taken together, these new views and actions represent the first major movement in US strategic ideas since 1942 and may presage a national strategic debate.

William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs.

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