IT'S a nightmare the Pentagon has worried about for years: dispatching large numbers of United States troops to two far-flung corners of the world at the same time. So far, both in Haiti and in Kuwait, the US military has managed this difficult feat better than perhaps even the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed probable.
In Haiti, a peaceful semi-invasion and occupation have required many ad hoc decisions of US commanders on the scene, to manage the challenging task of protecting the nation's hostile factions from one another.
The attention accorded President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return this past weekend may have overshadowed what officials claim is a textbook example of US forces' peacekeeping flexibility.
In the case of Kuwait, the Pentagon has managed to move more military power to the Gulf, more quickly, than it did when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990, at the same time threatening Saudi Arabia.
On Oct. 7, just before Iraq's latest move, there were 70 US aircraft in the region. Six days later there were over 200.
The deployment of forces for two regional contingencies has been made much easier by the lack of actual fighting. US airlift and sealift forces have been badly strained, however, and they remain inadequate to meet more demanding military scenarios.
But Clinton administration officials have seized on the military's performance in recent days as an opportunity to try and rebut charges that they have gutted the military via budget cuts and inattention.
``I think that the record shows that the readiness of the forces is ... higher, in my judgment, than it was in 1990, when we were worrying about Iraq the first time,'' said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch at a Pentagon briefing last week.
The requirement for the Pentagon to be prepared to plan to handle two major regional contingencies (MRCs, in military parlance) at the same time stems from the bottom-up review of US needs launched during the short tenure of Defense Secretary Les Aspin.
The most common theoretical scenarios involve renewed fighting in the Gulf region, coupled with a buildup of forces or war on the Korean peninsula.
A two-headed Korea-Gulf explosion would be far harder to handle than the twin crises now facing Pentagon planners.
Many commanders and military experts think the US no longer has the muscle for this most difficult of MRC situations. US troop strength is now 30 percent less than it was only four years ago. The Air Force, by some measures, will soon have only half the warplanes it had in 1990.
More important, the US may not have enough of certain crucial weapon systems to handle fighting in two places at once. Deep-strike aircraft such as F-15Es and F-117 Stealth fighters would be hard-pressed. There would not be enough C-5 and C-141 airlifters to meet needs in both parts of the world.
If the regional contingencies were separated by some months, the US might have enough forces to handle them, says a Pentagon consultant. If not, chaos could result. ``The real question is whether the MRCs are simultaneous,'' says the consultant.
But a Korea-Gulf multiple war is a worst-case scenario that may not be that likely, say some Pentagon planners. The current situation, with quick deployments to two tense areas, is a more realistic test of US capabilities, they argue.
Pentagon officials have recently fielded bitter complaints from some commanders about lack of money for training, parts, and morale-building activities. But on a per-unit basis, spending on readiness is higher now in all the services than it was in 1990, said Mr. Deutch.
``We are able to deal with two major regional conflicts occurring almost simultaneously,'' said Deutch.
Strategic mobility and logistic support remain areas of concern, Deutch says. The replacement for the aged C-141 airlifter, the C-17, remains mired in technical problems. Airlifter air crews are working overtime, and fast sealift ships remain in short supply.
United States officials have tried to make up for these problems with pre-positioned equipment, especially in the Gulf. Under a 10-year security pact with Kuwait, a brigade's worth of weapons and gear has been stored at Camp Doha, Kuwait. Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman have also provided secret bases for US equipment storage.
Saudi Arabia, however, has so far been resistant to a full-time US military presence. To help counter Saddam Husseins's continued intransigence, the US now wants to triple the number of pre-positioned heavy weapons in the Gulf, with perhaps at least a brigade's worth of tanks at King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia itself.
Plans call for enough pre-positioning to meet the needs of about 15,000 US troops, which could be quickly flown in on converted airliners.
``Saddam Hussein is a crafty character. I do see Iraq as a long-term threat to be contained,'' Defense Secretary William Perry said last week while touring the Gulf region.