Paper Threats, Real Dollars

THESE are lean times for Pentagon "threat analysts." The military threat that many of them have devoted careers to preparing for - a huge ground war in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact - has evaporated. So what's a fertile military mind to do? Play a lot of "what if?"

"What if?" produced a report leaked from the Pentagon sketching seven scenarios that would call for a United States military response. They range from small regional crises (a coup in the Philippines that endangers 5,000 Americans; a coup in Panama by narcoterrorists that jeopardizes the Panama Canal) to large regional crises (a rebuilt Iraq invades Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; North Korea invades South Korea) to dangers nearly on the scale of the dissipated Soviet threat (Russia attacks Lithuania through Po land, or a new expansionist superpower emerges to threaten Western interests).

The contingencies - which the Pentagon labels "illustrative" rather than "predictive aim to justify Defense Department budget requests of about $280 billion a year into the near future.

Not surprisingly, the scenarios, in combination, support military budgets and force levels consistent with those that Defense Secretary Cheney and the Joint Chiefs have identified as the minimum levels the US can prudently maintain in the post-cold-war environment. Yet those budgets and force levels were set before the scenarios were dreamed up.

To be sure, military budgets and force structures cannot be pulled from thin air. One analytical and planning tool should be an investigation of realistic - but not merely plausible, let alone fanciful - military threats. But "threats" planning is potentially unlimited (what about a revolution in Mexico endangering American citizens and interests?).

Secretary Cheney and the military brass have rightly warned against wanton spending cuts in the euphoria of the Soviet collapse, and cuts must not impair the structural and operational integrity of US fighting forces. But many analysts believe that, even after planned reductions, US forces will exceed levels needed for a sustainable, credible, and effective military structure.

The Pentagon "scenarios" look suspiciously like a wish list. Congress should examine it skeptically.

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