Military Lessons of the Gulf Crisis

THE current United States military intervention in the Gulf poses critical questions about the purposes and structure of American military power in the post-cold-war era. However the Gulf crisis is resolved, its military lessons will resonate into the next century. The Gulf intervention should prompt American policymakers to rethink the types of military threats we are likely to face in coming years, and the best means to structure our armed forces to meet these threats.

With the demise of the cold war, US forces are unlikely to be involved in a large-scale land war in Europe or Asia for the foreseeable future. This fact alone calls for a dramatic restructuring of US armed forces, which up to now have been preparing for a rerun of the last global war. It will no longer be necessary to maintain large standing armored forces in Europe, or naval forces designed to refight the Battle of the Atlantic against the Soviet submarine fleet.

What we do need is an army that can prevail in the likely conflicts of the 21st century; better yet, an army whose structure will help deter conflicts (just as for 50 years our large standing army in Europe helped deter war). Conflicts in the next century will fall under four broad categories: (1) Regional interventions, such as in the Gulf, to defend US allies from hostile neighbors or to protect resource flows; (2) preemptive or retaliatory strikes against terrorist groups, terrorist states, or drug cartels; (3) rescue missions to protect US nationals (such as in Liberia) or to free American hostages; and (4) participation in international peacekeeping operations.

These various contingencies dictate a force structure capable of swiftly intervening on a global basis against threats ranging from a terrorist gang up to an aggressive regional power such as Iraq. The essential elements of such a force structure are:

Enhanced strategic reconnaisance capabilities to detect potential threats.

Overseas basing rights, both in the theater of operations and at transit points. These bases, however, need not house tens of thousands of US troops; what will be important for future conflicts is base rights.

Enhanced sealift and airlift capabilities to enable swift deployment of forces.

Amphibious and airborne ground units capable of performing the initial intervention and, when necessary, securing bases for the introduction of US-based heavy units.

Naval forces centered on aircraft carriers and amphibious units to provide on-hand, independent intervention forces.

Naval and land-based tactical air forces to provide firepower and anti-armor support to light ground forces and to insure local air superiority.

Special forces to conduct limited antiterrorist operations and to serve as advisers to friendly nations.

In addition, military exercises should be designed to increase the effectiveness of intervention in possible trouble spots. Cooperative exercises with local forces of allied countries - such as the Bright Star program with Egypt - will prove invaluable. Of equal importance will be interservice exercises to reduce operational friction among the armed services, as plagued the US intervention in Grenada.

Underpinning this force structure will be a new conception of the objective of American strategy. For the past 50 years, the US strategic objective has been deterrence of nuclear war and a Soviet attack against Western Europe. In the coming decades, our strategic objective will be protecting resource flows and influencing the outcome of regional conflicts in which the US has important national interests.

In this context our nuclear arsenal has little deterrent value, since the immense political costs associated with such weapons renders their use unthinkable. Similarly, strategically immobile heavy armored forces based in Europe or the US will carry little weight in the calculus of regional power balances.

At the dawn of the cold war, Walter Lippmann counseled that our interests and our power must be brought into balance. In this regard, recent global developments are truly auspicious for the US. For this era in which our relative power is declining, and our budgetary problems loom large, is also an era in which our overseas interests can be defended without a large, and expensive, standing army.

The Gulf crisis, along with Grenada and Panama, should teach us a great deal about the nature of military conflict in the post-cold-war world. It is time to begin thinking about how to adapt our military structure accordingly.

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