The Reagan administration has issued secret guidance to the military to draft plans to hit the Soviets at their remote and most vulnerable global outposts in retaliation for any cutoff of Persian Gulf oil.
The effect of this new strategy could be to disperse rather than contain any conflict by setting fires at any number of places around the world where the United States is stronger than the Soviets.
One example cited by some military leaders but not formalized in the guidance is to threaten the Soviet brigade in Cuba if Moscow or its surrogates move into the Persian Gulf.
The Reagan administration's elaboration on long-existing war plans for fighting the Soviets head-to-head implies a need for hundreds of thousands more troops and billions of dollars in new weapons.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger recently signed off on the final version of his "consolidated guidance" to Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine leaders writing their budgets for the five-year program starting in 1983. The guidance covers militrary contingencies across the board.
Conceding in an opening letter that the final language came only after "spirited debate," Weinberger in several places directed the military leaders to figure out how to exploit Soviet vulnerablities.
"The United States will not necessarily be contrained to meet regional aggression only at the point of attack," he said at one point. "United States must be capable of responding in other areas as well and exploiting vulnerabilities in a controlled manner."
An earlier draft spelled out why this strategy has particular application to the Persian Gulf: "Given the Soviets' inherent geographical advantages in the Persian Gulf region and their superior number of available ground forces, we must develop plans and capabilities for rapid mobilization and for exploiting Soviet vulnerabilities worldwide."
That guidance codfies the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as expressed by Chairman David C. Jones before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. Said Gen. Jones:
"I think it is important that we convince the Soviet Union that any attempt by them to infringe on our vital interests around the world, which include Southwest Asia, will result in a confrontation with the United States which we would not limit to regions of advantage to them."
Weinberger, in a statement submitted for the same committee's record, said that "our deterrent capability" in the Persian Gulf "is linked with our ability and willingness to shift or widen the war to other areas."
Gen. Volney F. Warner, who recently retired as head of the U.S. Readiness Command, said in an interview with The Washington Post that any Soviet push on Persian Gulf oil would bring demands "to drown the Soviet brigade in Cuba."
This does not mean the United States would not send troops to the Persian Gulf, whatever the odds. Weinberger, in his guidance, said the services must be "prepared to introduce American security forces directly into the region."
During the Carter administration, a Pentagon official refused to rule out the possibility of using theater nuclear weapons to keep American troops from being overrun by Soviet forces in the Gulf. An earlier draft of the Weinberger guidance raised this same possibility but it was not repeated in the final version.
The draft, which represented some officials' thinking, said that for theater nuclear forces "to be a credible part of our defense effort, we must have a war-fighting capability in support of Nato, Pacom [Pacific Command] and Southwest Asian areas sufficient to place at risk a wide range of Soviet nuclear forces and allow us to escalate the conflict deliberately to our advantage."
In another part of his final version, Weinberger conveyed a sense of urgency about preparing the nation to move to a war footing in a hurry, telling the services that they should have "a fully operational set of plans and legal authority to undertake rapid and effective mobilization" by mid-1983. a
Underscoring his oft-state conviction that the next war is likely to be long, Weinberger told the services to assess the problems of expanding the U.S. industrial base to the point it could handle a tripling of the defense budget in a crisis and absorb half the gross national product.