IT'S 1997. Iraq, its military rebuilt through Saddam Hussein's tenacity, is once again threatening to invade Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, an increasingly erratic North Korea is massing troops on its border and appears ready to strike toward Seoul.
United States armed forces are much smaller than they were in 1993, because of years of continued budget cuts. Will they be able to throw back these threats to key US allies?
This theoretical question reflects one of the most important issues being debated in the Pentagon nowadays. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have long insisted the US should have a large enough military to be able to fight two major regional wars at once. Can this capability be maintained with the force size planned by the Clinton administration?
Budget pressure, after all, is sure to force continued cuts in defense funds. A larger percentage of troops will be based in the US in coming years, as expensive overseas bases close.
One option Clinton officials have considered is dropping the two-war capability requirement. This would be replaced by a strategy called "win-hold-win" - in other words, fight and prevail in one regional conflict while stalemating a second adversary. Then quickly shift units to throw overwhelming force at the remaining fight.
Military planners, however, have worried that "win-hold-win" might serve as an excuse for lowering preparedness. In a recent speech Secretary of Defense Les Aspin appeared to back off from this option. Mr. Aspin told a crowd at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland that he had come to the conclusion that "our forces must be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts, and nearly simultaneously."
Critics grumble that this statement is all well and good, but that the US forces left by the latter years of the decade just won't be able to do that job.
The 1997 defense budget is liable to be 40 percent smaller in real terms than it was in 1987, according to Clinton officials. The Bush administration had planned a "base force" of 1.6 million US active duty troops; Clinton officials say they will reduce that by at least 200,000.
Specific Clinton force level plans won't be known until Aspin finishes his large, ongoing bottom-up Pentagon review. But levels under consideration would be generally consistent with 10 Army active-duty divisions instead of the 12 President Bush had planned. Air Force wings would be 20, instead of Bush's base force 26.5. Aircraft carriers might be reduced from 12 to 10, although Aspin has specifically said his mind is not made up on this point.
It must be remembered that the Bush base force was itself a reduction in troops - last year the Army had 14 active-duty divisions, for instance.
Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan Tonelson, research director of the Economic Strategy Institute, says that while President Clinton affirms the US superpower role "he has denied the nation the military resources that role requires."
Mr. Tonelson cites congressional research figures that found that even under Bush's proposed base force, a future war the size of Desert Storm would need 66 percent of Army divisions, 50 percent of carrier battle groups, 66 percent of Air Force fighter-attack wings, and 66 percent of Marine fighting units.
Rather than bolster military budgets, Tonelson favors scaling back the definition of American interests so that the means of US forces can match the ends of US foreign policy.
A recent major study undertaken at the behest of the Air Force, however, has come to the opposite conclusion: that Clinton's forces could fight and win two big regional wars in the years 1997 and beyond.
The key to US success would be adequate stocks of new high-tech munitions for aircraft and an expansion of airlift and sealift capability, says the report, which was prepared by the RAND Corporation.
The study's scenario weighed an invasion of Saudi Arabia by a revitalized Iraq and a North Korean attack on the South that begins shortly thereafter.
The wars could be won with weapons now available, but it would be a near-run thing: Iraqi forces wouldn't be stopped for nine to 14 days, until they neared the key Saudi port of Dhahran.
According to RAND, the Iraqi invasion would be stopped much more quickly if the US had on hand large numbers of new air-delivered munitions, which use their own sensors and guidance systems to seek and destroy tanks. With such "brilliant munitions" the US would be able to stop an attack force of 8,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 aircraft in a little more than a week, judges RAND.