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Two-War Scenario: A Strategy Straining the Pentagon

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 12, 1996; Page A14

The nation's military leaders are heading into a major review of the structure of U.S. forces divided over one of the Pentagon's central assumptions: the United States needs to be able to fight two regional wars nearly at once.

The two-war scenario has served as the Pentagon's key measure for how best to size and shape U.S. forces since the Soviet Union dissolved. It assumes that the U.S. military might have to fight middle-sized wars against two opponents, such as Iraq and North Korea, "nearly simultaneously."

But with defense spending likely to remain at most flat into the next decade, and with U.S. forces becoming increasingly involved in time-consuming peace operations, the notion that the Pentagon can continue to prepare for two regional wars has come under attack as no longer feasible.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, has emerged as the most vocal critic of the current standard. In meetings with other military service chiefs, he has argued that the cost of maintaining the force structure necessary to fight two major regional conflicts is too high. Staying with the two-war objective, he worries, will undercut the credibility of any revised blueprint the Pentagon puts forward next spring at the conclusion of its policy study, called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Nonetheless, the majority view among top Defense Department officials remains that the United States has little alternative other than to reaffirm the two-war plan, given the real prospect still of simultaneous conflicts breaking out in the Persian Gulf region and on the Korean peninsula.

Reflecting this position, Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, has told fellow four-star commanders, for instance, that the United States must continue to be prepared to handle contingencies in both southwest and northeast Asia. Switching to some kind of one-war-plus scenario, Reimer contends, would present the United States with the diplomatic dilemma of choosing which potential war gets secondary status and explaining why to coalition partners.

Discussions among the chiefs on the two-war issue have yet to come to a head, according to sources familiar with the debate, but the outcome will be crucial for military plans and Pentagon buying decisions in President Clinton's second term.

"It's a fundamental issue," said a senior military officer taking part in the review. "I think we're all trying to figure out how to retain the force the nation needs without all the baggage associated with two major regional conflicts."

For more than three years already, the Clinton administration has had difficulty making a credible case that U.S. forces even now are sufficiently large and equipped to meet the two-war objective, which was first set under President George Bush.

"We currently have a strategy that can't be sustained by the force structure, and a force structure that can't be sustained by the budget," said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington think tank. That assessment is widely accepted, he added, to the point it's "no longer" the subject of "great debate within the Beltway."

But senior military planners on the Joint Staff who have examined alternative approaches continue to favor the two-war model. Pentagon officials are mindful of a frustrated attempt in 1993 by Clinton's first defense secretary, Les Aspin, to break from the two-war approach and draft a plan based on defeating one enemy while holding the other at bay until later — an option dubbed "win-hold-win."

Aspin tried briefly to make the case that the two-war strategy was not needed because breakthroughs in weapons and detection technology would permit the United States to hold off a second adversary with only a small commitment of forces. But this plan proved politically unsupportable, and Aspin ended up endorsing the two-war scenario in his "Bottom-Up Review," which became the blueprint for military planning in Clinton's first term.

"With this [two-war] capability," the review report said, "we will be confident — and our allies as well as potential enemies will know — that a single regional conflict will not leave our interests and allies in other regions at risk. Further, sizing our forces for two major regional conflicts provides a hedge against the possibility that a future adversary might one day confront us with a larger-than-expected threat."

The current review, which formally got under way last month, actually marks the third time the United States has attempted to come up with a post-Cold War plan. The previous two efforts — Gen. Colin L. Powell's "Base Force" in 1992 and Aspin's "Bottom-Up Review" in 1993 — reduced U.S. troops by about one-third from the 1980s and shifted focus from global to regional threats. But both plans resulted in only limited adjustments to Cold War thinking about types of forces, ways of fighting and budget shares among the military services.

In contrast to the Pentagon's continued emphasis on preparing to wage large regional wars, U.S. troops have been called on increasingly not for combat operations but for peacekeeping and humanitarian-assistance actions. As Reimer noted in a recent speech, Army units were deployed on significant operations about 25 times since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, compared with only 10 times in the previous 40 years.

Such heightened demand for U.S. military involvement in what once were considered unconventional missions has called into question whether U.S. forces are properly configured and equipped to deal with this increasing fact of post-Cold War life.

Also driving the Pentagon to reconfigure forces is the changing nature of warfare. Advances in long-range precision weaponry, radar-evading capabilities and integrated information technologies argue in favor of stepped-up investment in next-generation systems, at the expense perhaps of some of the Pentagon's active-duty lineup of 10 Army divisions, 13 Air Force wings and 350 Navy ships.

These issues are at the center of the new review. So far, military commanders have appeared resistant to more reductions in troop strength, contending that even at existing numbers, U.S. forces have been stretched by the surge in peace operations.

"Everyone knows that what we eventually decide about the two-war issue will be one of the key elements on which we'll be graded and assessed," said a civilian defense official involved in the review process. "The debate now in the Pentagon is going on at two levels.

"One is the requirement itself: Should we keep the two-conflict approach? The other is: If we keep it, how might we structure forces differently to meet it?"

Indeed, there is more than one way for the United States to appear ready to fight two regional conflicts nearly simultaneously. By changing some provisions in the current blueprint — for instance, by assigning even greater roles to allied foreign forces or U.S. National Guard and Reserve units, or by stretching the planned time line for winning two wars — defense planners may be able to allow for more adjustments in the active-duty force.

William J. Lynn, the Pentagon's director of program analysis and evaluation, has floated the notion of keeping the two-war scenario in the short term as a planning benchmark, but using a different, more flexible set of measures for making long-term procurement decisions.

"We clearly do have two major regional conflicts we're going to have to be prepared to defend against, at least in the near term," he said at a recent strategy conference in Boston. "But we must think about whether our modernization program needs to be governed by the same principles, threats and strategy that determine our force structure."

On one general point, a Pentagon consensus does appear to have emerged — namely, an acknowledgment that some reshaping of U.S. forces will be necessary to cope more easily with peace operations.

The Clinton administration had assumed in its first term that such "lesser contingencies" — such as the interventions in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia — could be accomplished using forces built around the two-war scenario. But this underestimated the frequency, duration and complexity of such operations.

Aircraft carriers, bombers, jet fighters and tanks may be good for winning wars against, say, the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But what the Pentagon needs more often these days are forces versatile enough for low-intensity operations. This puts a premium on, for instance, the military police, transportation units and communications gear.

For all the shortcomings of the existing Pentagon blueprint, senior defense officials have essentially closed the door on radical alternatives by making clear lately they do not intend to reexamine all basic principles.

The working assumption is that annual military spending over the next decade will not increase and may fall below current projections of roughly $250 billion, given Clinton's commitment to balancing the federal budget by 2002 while protecting Medicaid, Medicare, education and the environment.

While the Pentagon expects to complete its review by spring, Congress has mandated establishment of an outside National Defense Panel to assess the results and issue its own report later in 1997 — a move sure to stretch out the reassessment process through the year.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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