Scrap the 2-War Strategy

It's the only way to modernize and live within the budget

The congressionally mandated National Defense Panel recently released its report on future challenges to US security. Made up of nine distinguished civilians and retired military officers, the panel was asked to provide an independent assessment of future defense needs from the near future through 2020. Unfortunately, the panel did not offer any specific recommendations for how a Pentagon already cash-strapped could spend less money.

Instead, it focused attention on places where the military should spend more.

At a conceptual level, the defense panel did good work. For example, it challenged the assumption that US forces will be able to safely establish large beachheads from which to wage future battles, la Desert Storm. The panel advocated making ground units more mobile, fully exploiting unmanned aerial vehicles and other new reconnaissance and communications systems, and making greater efforts to protect deployed troops as well as the American homeland from attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.

But the Pentagon already has too many things to spend more money on. Despite all the hoopla about the 104th and 105th Congress giving more money to the military, the country will spend 12 percent less on the armed forces in 1998 than in 1995 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Under the recent balanced-budget act, annual defense spending will decline another 8 percent by 2002. All told, national security spending that was $375 billion in 1990 will total about $245 billion in 2002 (as expressed in constant 1998 dollars).

Even without the National Defense Panel's wish list, that spending level will be inadequate to support all the forces and weapons programs now planned. The main problem is that the US military will soon need to replace aging equipment purchased during the Reagan buildup. Last spring's Quadrennial Defense Review and last month's Defense Reform Initiative chipped away at this budget problem, but hardly solved it: The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that the Department of Defense could easily face an annual funding shortfall of $20 billion next decade.

Fortunately, the US armed forces can probably get by with the level of real spending now anticipated for 2002, even while putting more resources into the types of technologies and experiments recommended by the National Defense Panel. The way to start is by revising the current two-war strategy - a change the panel seemed inclined to advocate, but without offering any concrete suggestion how. That strategy pessimistically envisions two overlapping conflicts, most likely in the Persian Gulf and Korea, each requiring US forces approaching the scale of Operation Desert Storm.

A better approach would modify today's two Desert Storms strategy to something more like a Desert Storm plus Desert Shield plus Bosnia peacekeeping posture. Desert Shield was the defensive deployment intended to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack in the fall of 1990. It involved some 200,000 US troops in contrast to Desert Storm's half million.

THIS approach would allow roughly another 10 percent cut in US forces, largely in ground units. It would allow the US armed forces to go all out to win a major war in one theater - up to and including a major invasion and occupation of enemy territory, as could be necessary if we ever decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It also would allow the US to deploy a smaller force somewhere else that could maintain a robust defensive position on the ground while vigorously attacking enemy armed forces and territory from the air. Although such a Desert Shield-like force might not be capable of a major ground offensive, it would generally deter would-be aggressors.

This approach will not satisfy those who are looking for further big savings from the Pentagon. For example, it would avoid the more Draconian but imprudent approach of blithely assuming that no more than one major crisis or war could ever occur simultaneously. But it would solve the defense budget problem without weakening America's role in the world or giving adversaries the green light to attack.

* Michael O'Hanlon is completing a Brookings Institution book on future US defense strategy.

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