The US military, after decades of planning to fight a war with stable fronts and massed firepower, is changing its approach. Tacticians are beginning to emphasize maneuver, quick hits, more daring tactics. The change reflects the realization that the Soviet Union is able to more than match the United States tank for tank; and the knowledge that the US must be ready for smaller conflicts in such places as the Persian Gulf.
``We're not locked in concrete. We're thinking about new things,'' says Col. Harry Summers, a member of the Army War College faculty.
In 1982, the Army's basic operational manual was rewritten to emphasize a new ``airland'' fighting doctrine. This doctrine, a Pentagon official says, aims to keep the enemy off balance with unexpected blows. If the Soviets rolled tanks into West Germany, for instance, NATO forces might quickly counterattack airfields and command posts deep behind enemy lines.
And the US has begun restructuring its forces for quick movement to far-off lands. President Carter's planned Rapid Deployment Force has become the unified Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. It is responsible for moving quickly to protect US interests from Southwest Asia to the Horn of Africa. The Army, partly to provide Central Command troops, will soon deploy four fast-moving ``light'' divisions.
A wide range of military experts believes the US military high command should, indeed, spend more time thinking how to balance the virtues of mobility with those of power. Some, however, criticize the particular steps that have been taken.
For instance, Jeffrey Record, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, says the Army's new light divisions are mobile simply because they've been stripped of many weapons of real consequence, such as battle tanks and heavy artillery. He feels an effective rapid force should have more special equipment, such as a fast-moving light tank.
Robert Komer, a strong proponent of the ``rapid deployment force'' in his days as a senior Pentagon official, says a chronic lack of airlift capacity is ``the Achilles' heel of our conventional forces.''
Debate about US force capability is not limited to questions of movement. In the immediate post-Vietnam era it was unpopular for politicians to discuss the military as an instrument that might be used. Today, after Grenada and the Reagan military buildup, there is much discussion in Washington as to whether the armed services are all they can be.
The Pentagon hierarchy says much progress has been made in recent years. ``The military posture of our armed forces is sound,'' said Army Gen. John Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), earlier this year. ``By every common-sense measure, our forces are more ready than at any time in the recent past.''
A case can be made, however, that when called into action in recent years, the US military has not always moved with the smoothness of a well-practiced athlete.
In 1980, the attempt to rescue US hostages held in Iran ended in failure and casualties.
In 1983, in Lebanon, two Navy planes were lost -- with one pilot captured and his bombardier-navigator killed -- in a rigidly planned raid on a Syrian position.
Even the invasion of Grenada, in which an overwhelming US force eventually squashed its opposition, was not without major flaws, claim critics.
``Grenada was not the military success it should have been, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff led us to believe it was,'' says Rep. Jim Courter (R) of New Jersey, a former House chairman of the Military Reform Caucus, who has studied the operation.
It is bureaucracy, critics say, that causes much of the US military's problems. Critics complain that the military high command is dominated by men more knowledgeable about budgets than fighting skills.
``The power is with the view-graph artists,'' says Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fierce interservice rivalry is one result of this situation. Some competition can be an effective way of keeping units well honed, but it often leads to overcomplicated missions, claim critics. The Grenada invasion, for instance, featured a Marine unit, two elite Army Ranger battalions, a brigade from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Navy SEAL commandos, and the interservice Delta Force of special operations troops -- all commanded by a Navy admiral. It was ``a pie-dividing contest'' that ``allowed the enemy to put on a reasonably good show,'' says William Lind, a military-affairs aide to Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado.
Too many layers of military planners can also lead to overdesigned weapons, critics say. The F-16 was first conceived as a relatively inexpensive hot rod of a fighter, with no fancy electronics but the largest possible engine for maximum dogfight power. Air Force designers kept adding a little here and a little there, says Mr. Luttwak, and today the plane has bomb racks, expensive computers, and costs more than $25 million a copy.
In general, the US military has twice as many officers as it needs, claims Richard Gabriel, a former military intelligence officer who is now a political science professor at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H. The military education system contains little study of actual war, he complains, and weapons such as missiles have become too expensive to train with.
Critics of the US military often hold up the West German and Israeli fighting forces as models of honed skill. Both nations have relatively centralized military high commands -- a feature the US might do well to emulate, according to defense reformers. These reformers also advocate a two-year defense budget cycle.
But the US military is so large that it may never be as efficient as the forces of smaller nations. ``The US is a great power with commitments all over the globe,'' says John Mearscheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist with many published works on military affairs. ``We have to be prepared to fight lots of different places. There are limits as to how rational you can make things.''
Next: The military's leadership ability.