'Overhaul' of military may pack less punch

Secretary Rumsfeld adopts gentler tone -including on the idea of cutting US troops.

Suddenly, it's the incredible shrinking military review.

What the Bush administration once billed as a defense reform that would take the United States beyond the mindset of the cold war to a security structure based on 21st-century challenges is now looking more like a conventional periodic review - one that results in little change.

That includes the core issue of cuts in the number of US troops, which may be much less radical than once anticipated. Indeed, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prepares to give his recommendations to Congress next month, expectations for a military overhaul are fading faster than a winter sunset.

Ever since George W. Bush pressed the idea of military restructuring during his election campaign - talking about new technologies and even musing about unmanned vehicles to help with America's defense - the question of troop levels has hung like a backdrop. The speculation was that Mr. Rumsfeld might seek to cut at least two Army divisions, numerous Air Force fighter squadrons, and Navy carriers to pay for the new direction.

That set off a reaction among military brass (picture a cat caught unawares by a formidable canine) and howls in Congress.

Of late, Rumsfeld has nuanced his words. At a Pentagon press briefing Friday, he said, "We've not been talking about cutting forces. We've been talking about balancing risks, and how that comes out is yet to be seen."

A day earlier, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense, said some reduction remains "definitely possible." But he added, "I need to stress it's possible that [force structure] will roughly stay the same."

A 'revolution' no more?

Such talk has defense experts concluding that the much-anticipated Quadrennial Defense Review Rumsfeld must submit to Congress by Sept. 30 will drop the "r" from revolutionary.

"It's going to be less than what everybody expected," says Conrad Crane of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

At his briefing, Rumsfeld spoke at length about the need for a new global defense strategy "closer to the force levels we have." He said the current strategy of winning two wars "decisively and on our terms" has lived with the "little secret" that the forces don't exist to back it up.

A more realistic strategy, one more aligned with today's forces and threats, he said, would take into account the need to meet several smaller "contingencies" - such as in the Balkans - as well as winning one major war.

At the heart of a whittled-down reform is a disconnect been the Bush administration and Pentagon brass over what to expect from each other, Mr. Crane says. "The military expected more money and more support" from President Bush, without anticipating what he might ask in return, he says. And "the Bush administration thought it could accomplish a speedy and revolutionary military reform. Both were dashed."

Pentagon requests for more money are meeting more receptive ears at the Bush White House. But the president's $1.3 trillion tax cut and a shriveling budget surplus are forcing a spotlight on savings that could come from cuts in the 1.4 million active-duty personnel.

That pressure for savings will remain high. Mr. Bush reiterated last week that he will not dip into the Social Security surplus - now almost all of the budget surplus - to pay for other priorities.

Resistance to cuts in military personnel is emblematic of the thick brush Rumsfeld is encountering on the path of military reform. Rumsfeld has said he sees an "excess base structure" of about 20 percent, and favors a change in the number, structure, and location of forces.

But an unwillingness to press for deep cuts surfaced last week when Mr. Wolfowitz indicated that long-awaited planning guidelines for the fiscal 2003 budget, expected to be completed this week, will probably leave to each service the task of deciding whether forces can be cut to pay for new weapons and other needs.

A balky Congress

Some observers see the move as a shirking of responsibilities, but it may be designed in part to bolster Rumsfeld's relations with Congress, which he needs to do to accomplish the administration's broader military-reform goals. Earlier this month, Rumsfeld received a letter from 82 lawmakers (including a majority from the House Armed Services Committee) condemning any move toward cuts in armed forces.

Some experts who favor cutting both troop size and the scope of military missions say Rumsfeld will have himself to blame if his reform fizzles. "Rumsfeld hasn't been good at preparing the ground for this, either with Congress or the military," says Ivan Eland, director of defense studies at the Cato Institute, which promotes limited government.

But an underlying reason for the less-than-enthusiastic response to military reform may be that the public feels no burning need to fix what isn't broke. Without public pressure, reform is left to interests - the military, Congress, even industry - that are resisting big change.

"It's hard to accomplish revolutionary change when the public doesn't sense the need. Neither the money nor the incentive is there," says Mr. Crane. "I think we'll move in the direction Rumsfeld wants, but it won't be near as fast as what he'd like."

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