THE United States Army has a problem: In a few years, the threat it is most prepared to face, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, may be gone. Some people think the menace is over already; others believe it is as real as ever. No matter which is more accurate, observers say it is time to think about what the Army of the future will look like.
One thing seems certain: If the current relaxation of tensions in Europe continues, the Army will look very different from today.
``If NATO and Warsaw Pact forces are reduced, the pressure to reduce US land forces will be irresistible,'' says Rep. Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma.
The Army is set up to fight a large-scale land battle in Europe using heavy forces - tanks and large artillery. Of the Army's 775,000 soldiers, about 217,000 are stationed in Europe. Their job is to deter a Soviet attack on NATO.
But fewer and fewer people believe there will ever be a Soviet attack, given the changes occurring in the East bloc. Such an attack could escalate to a nuclear conflict no one would win. And the Soviets seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has already announced a unilateral withdrawal of some Soviet forces from Eastern and Central Europe. The US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency report that the Soviets appear to have cut defense spending this year. Conventional forces reduction (CFE) talks between the Warsaw Pact and NATO may also soon lead to further reductions in Soviet and US forces.
Tight federal budgets, combined with the changed threat, are hitting the Army hard. Many in Congress question the need to support such a large force in Europe if there is little threat there.
``Very deep and very real cuts'' is how Representative Edwards described ``the amount of money that's going to be spent on national defense'' at a recent conference here on the Army's future role.
Policymakers are trying to forecast what the world will look like in the 1990s to determine changes that should be made in the Army.
The world will not necessarily be safer, many say. Robert Pfaltzgraff Jr., of the Fletcher School's Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at Tufts University, cites four trends:
The proliferation of chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic-missile technologies.
The rise of new political and military power centers in the third world.
Increasing economic and political demands by previously inactive ethnic or religious groups.
Enormous population growth, resulting in a squeeze on natural and economic resources.
While the Soviet threat may diminish, it will remain, Dr. Pfaltzgraff predicts. But the military threat from new power centers will grow as more third-world countries acquire sophisticated weapons, making it more likely the US could get involved in a high-intensity war outside of Europe, he says.
``The possiblity of high-intensity or nuclear conflict - especially between the US and the Soviet Union - is getting more remote all the time,'' says Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel who now writes for the Los Angeles Times. And ```people's wars' and `wars of national liberation' have run their course.''
Such diverging views about future threats leads many analysts to call for a more flexible Army. Such a force would have to be prepared to engage in jungle warfare, protect oil fields in the desert, or intercept drug smugglers in New Mexico. All are missions requiring different equipment and forces than are needed to fight sweeping tank battles in Europe.
But creating a new, flexible Army, runs counter to current military force structure - and keeping that structure has become an end in itself for each branch of the military, says Army critic Alan Sabrosky, professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.
The Army's present structure serves the Army's own institutional purposes more than the nation, he says.
In the 1990s, for example, the country will need airborne and naval special forces, general-purpose ground forces that can be deployed quickly, and a greater ability to move forces, especially by air, Mr. Sabrosky says.
He advocates maintaining only one expeditionary force, not two, implying an Army-Marine Corps merger. More of the Army should be in reserves, he says. Few, if any troops would be stationed in Europe.
Richard Halloran, military correspondent for the New York Times, says a smaller, lighter Army will best suit future US defense needs.
He urges creation of a 600,000-man force, with token deployments in Europe and South Korea that can deploy rapidly anywhere in the world.
Not everyone agrees with the ``lighten up'' approach, however. The increasing number of heavy weapons (tanks, rockets, and artillery) in the hands of third-world nations cannot be countered with light infantry, says Donn Starry, a retired general now working at Ford Aerospace.
``If we are going to send light forces, then they need the weapons to deal with a heavy-force threat,'' he says.
Meanwhile, one of the most difficult issues is building public support for defense in an era where the threat is not as apparent as it has been since 1950. Barry Blechman, of Defense Forecast Inc., a defense consulting firm, predicts the defense budget will fall from 5 to 6 percent of gross national product to 3.5 to 4 percent, or from about $300 billion to $250 billion annually.