WASHINGTON — IT looks like the Pentagon has pretty well given up planning for World War III.
United States military leaders used to figure they'd have only a few days' warning if the Soviet Union decided to roll into Western Europe. Maybe a week, if they were lucky. Now they're looking at a warning time longer than the span of their careers.
"We're talking years, decades, generations," said Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a meeting with defense reporters.
It would take that long for the remnants of ex-Soviet forces "to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," said General Powell.
Considering the state of the world today that seems a pretty obvious conclusion.
But chairmen of the Joint Chiefs are usually men who, shall we say, believe their job requires them to focus on the worst-case scenario.
For instance, past chiefs have for decades insisted they needed enough weaponry to fight conventional war in two world theaters at once, as they did in the Pacific and European theaters in World War II. That's another planning point since gone by the wayside.
Defense Department officials now think that, if for some reason fighting broke out in one region, they'd be able to ship replenishment stocks from another without worrying too much about being caught with empty bomb bins.
Powell said he'd still like to be able to deal with the two-fight scenario, but "I have a hard time envisioning more than one at a time."
The general said he thinks the congressional battle over the defense budget has hardly been joined, and that it will get even fiercer next year.
Many critics have pointed out that the number of divisions, warships, and air wings planned by the Pentagon is the same today as it was last year, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This year's US National Military Strategy (an actual document issued by the Pentagon annually) says threats to America are no longer global, but regional. The only countries it mentions by name as problems are North Korea, "perhaps ... a hostile Iran," and "a weakened Iraq."
With Saddam Hussein chuffing a bit lately about continued cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, there has been some speculation in Washington about contingency plans for more US military action in the Gulf.
Powell declined to say anything on this subject. He did say he felt recent reports that Saddam Hussein might have as many as 800 Scud missiles hidden away were overblown. d be surprised if it's theoretically possible for him to have more than one-third of that number," the general said.
It is widely assumed among Pentagon observers that Powell is a chief proponent, along with Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, of the no-nonsense school of military force.
In other words, if called upon, assemble overwhelming power and deliver a knockout punch. Don't rely on political signal-sending with lightly-armed Marine detachments.
The National Military Strategy calls this the theory of Decisive Force.