Boston — Tumultuous change is under way in the area of national defense. It profoundly affects US and NATO strategy, the organization of American forces, and the technology of the weapons they use. These are just some of the conclusions participants drew at a Nov. 17-18 conference on United States defense policy held in Cambridge, Mass., under the auspices of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Academics, military officers, and government officials discussed what the future holds for US defense strategy.
The US armed forces face a rapidly changing world. Defense spending flattened after a large increase during President Reagan's first term.
The budget deficit will severely constrain weapons procurement, personnel salaries and benefits, and deployment, conference particpants agreed. High-tech ``smart'' weapons are making conventional warfare ever more lethal.
Chemical and nuclear weapons continue to proliferate despite efforts to get them under control. And space is fast becoming a fourth battlefield, after land, sea and air.
Dramatic technological developments over the next 20 years may well shift the battlefield balance from offense to defense, as did the machine gun during World War I, US Army Col. Robert Helms II told conference participants. The battlefield is becoming more ``transparent'' - each side knows more about what the other is doing - and it is growing wider and deeper, he said.
In addition, the political situation under which US forces operate is in flux. And the Soviet Union seems to be entering a period either of retrenchment or consolidation after a period that saw Soviet, Cuban, or Vietnamese forces deployed abroad in Afghanistan, Africa, and Indochina. Yet the Soviets at the same time are pursuing a diplomatic offensive.
Nevertheless, the influence of both superpowers is diminishing as regional powers increase their influence in the third world. US bases are threatened by domestic politics and upheaval in Greece and the Philippines. And the threat of US conflict with small armies, guerrilla groups, and terrorist organizations continues. The ability of the US to project its power and influence in the world is likely to diminish unless there is a rethinking of US national defense strategy, Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff Jr., an international security specialist at the Fletcher School, told conference participants.
Two major areas where conference speakers indicated such strategic rethinking is needed were space and unconventional, or ``low-intensity,'' conflict.
The real `star wars'
For many people, war in space has become synonymous with the futuristic Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars.'' Yet that has little to do with military space challenges that the Pentagon is now facing. National security satellites are already essential elements of US military capability, said Navy Capt. Horatio Turner of the US Space Command.
About 70 percent of US military communications use space systems. The NAVSTAR satellite provides essential navigational information to military and civilian ships and aircraft. Weather satellites also provide crucial information for military planning. Spy satellites now play a key role in the verification of nuclear arms control agreements.
The use of satellites has eliminated the horizon as a barrier to battle, Captain Turner said. It is now possible to build space-radar, infared-imaging and surveillance satellites that can provide the battlefield commander or the ship captain with information on what the enemy is up to at almost the same time he acts.
The importance of these space assets, however, makes them high-priority targets in any future war. The Soviets have seized the initiative in developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, said Gen. John Piotrowski, commander in chief of the Space Command. The Soviet attack satellites are ``kinetic kill'' weapons that destroy targets by smashing into them. But the Soviet GALOSH antiballistic missile system around Moscow also has the ability to knock down low-altitude satellites. The Soviets are researching both manned and unmanned space weapons, Turner said, including electronic jammers and directed-energy weapons.
General Piotrowski noted that the Soviets also have a much greater ability than the US to launch satellites quickly and on short notice. During the Falkland Islands war between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982, he said, the Soviets launched about 28 intelligence satellites in 60 days. Given the fact that the war flared up with very little warning, this must mean the Soviets had a large inventory of back-up satellites and launchers available for emergency use.
The US, by contrast, has neither an operative ASAT system to knock down Soviet satellites, nor a launch capability that could quickly replace US satellites destroyed by Soviet ASATs. One type of Soviet launcher alone has launched more satellites than all US rockets put together. US space vulnerability is further heightened because both launch sites are located near the ocean and major highways, Turner noted.
Low-intensity conflict, a phrase strategists and bureaucrats use to describe unconventional military actions short of full-scale war, has been a growth industry under the Reagan administration. Since World War II, such conflict has usually taken place in the third world. US involvement in low-intensity conflict can take the form of aid to friendly governments fighting rebels, aid to friendly rebel movements fighting unfriendly governments, and counterterrorist actions.
Given the world situation, it appears that the trend toward greater US involvement in low-intensity conflict will continue. Retired Gen. Paul Gorman, former commander of the US Southern Command in Panama, chaired a group of specialists which concluded that ``to defend its interests the United States will have to take low-intensity conflict much more seriously. ... It must become a permanent addition to the menu of defense planning.''
The Reagan administration agreed that the US needed to face up to the challenge low-intensity conflict posed, said Richard Shultz, a Fletcher School professor specializing in international security issues. Nevertheless US ability to meet the long-term challenge of low-intensity conflict has improved only marginally since 1981. The administration's attempts in this area, Dr. Shultz said, ran into insufficient coordination among the various US government departments involved, a lack of guidelines for action, no strategy consensus, and the absence of a national doctrine for low-intensity conflict.
Policymakers have struggled to determine when it is proper for the US to intervene in a low-intensity conflict, but they have not yet come up with criteria that would get a consensus in Congress.
Jeffrey Salmon of the National Defense University pointed out that Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York has given two criteria that could lead to bipartisan support for US intervention: the presence of invading or occupying foreign troops, and the perception that the rebels or resistance fighters are the victims of foreign aggression. But Dr. Salmon found these criteria too limiting, and he urged the incoming Bush administration to make a major policy statement to help the public understand US actions and objectives.
Several participants called for the creation of a special US force that could be used for intervention in third-world low-intensity conflicts as needed. Some went so far as to demand the creation of a new branch of the service for this purpose. But resistance to creation of such a force is great, both at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government.
Much of the enthusiasm for such action is found in Congress, which has created a Special Operations Command, and the new position of assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The Pentagon has been slow to staff the new positions, however, said Sam Sarkesian of Loyola University. He predicted Congress would take further steps to prod the Pentagon in this direction.
Intervention in such conflicts is not limited to military action, General Gorman observed. Friendly governments and rebel movements may need assistance in establishing their legitimacy, and US economic policies (tariffs, for example) should not undo the benefits of US economic aid. US assistance should not be limited only to ``anticommunist'' governments or rebels in places such as El Salvador or Nicaragua, but should be extended to ``pro-democratic'' forces in the Philippines, Haiti, and Panama, he said.