Having just waged a victorious war in the Persian Gulf with the largest combat force it has mustered overseas since the Vietnam War, the United States is now embarking on the largest reduction of forces since the end of that conflict -- when active-duty troop levels were cut by a third to 2.1 million from 1968-75 -- and the fleet was halved to 367 warships.
But there is an important difference between then and now. Today's reductions are not pegged to the end of a war. In fact, by a quirk of historical irony, President Bush announced them last August 2, the very day Iraq invaded Kuwait. Now that the 43-day battle to reverse that occupation and smash Iraq's military power is behind us, many in Washington are anxiously wondering whether the planned draw-down is wise. Several facts remain, however, which suggest that the build-down will likely proceed as planned.
For one thing, the federal government is just as broke now as it was before the Kuwait crisis. For another, the Warsaw Pact, the chief force against which the American military has been poised for four decades, was formally disbanded on Feb. 25, two days before the gulf war ended. And, finally, there just aren't many other Saddam Husseins with million-man armies and 5,500 tanks in this world.
If not yielding quite the plush "peace dividend" that some optimists anticipated early last year, the planned cutbacks are still sizeable. From a post-Vietnam peak of 2.2 million in 1987, active-duty troop levels are supposed to decline to 1.7 million in 1995. The half-million soldiers, sailors and aviators headed for pink slips, ironically, exactly match the number who fought in Operation Desert Storm.
Two Army divisions will be disbanded by the end of this year and another eight by 1995, leaving 12 active and 6 reserve divisions. Ten active and reserve 72-plane tactical fighter wings will be dismantled, leaving 26. And the once-vaunted 600-ship Navy will sink from 528 at the end of this year to 451 in four years' time.
The nation's senior military officers signed off on these changes last summer. But some now wave red warning flags on Capitol Hill when members of Congress ask them if they would be able to mount another Desert Storm after 1995.
"We would have a very difficult time doing it as quickly," the Army chief of staff, General Carl E. Vuono, told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 20.
"We could not provide what has been provided," Marine Corps Commandant General Alfred M. Gray told that panel the next day.
Repeating the Persian Gulf deployments would be "very difficult to do with a force of lesser capability," the chief of naval operations, Admiral Frank B. Kelso II, concurred.
Unarguably, the challenge would be more daunting. Of the four TC divisions and two brigades the Pentagon had in Western Europe, for example, it moved all but two divisions to Saudi Arabia late last fall. By the mid-1990s, the Army's VII Corps won't be so conveniently deployed in Germany.
And, with the shrunken forces posted for the late 1990s, the Pentagon would need more time to amass 500,000-plus troops in a theater of war 8,000 miles away, and might have to push its troops harder than it has.
Nevertheless, the logistical feats of recent months could be repeated, if necessary. "Under the 25-percent force reduction, I think we could still do it again," Lawrence J. Korb, the assistant defense secretary for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics from 1981 to 1985, insisted. "We had only 15 to 20 percent of our forces over there [in Saudi Arabia]. You'd probably have to call up more reserves and you might have to do some substitution, putting the Marines in earlier, for instance."
A relevant but as-yet unanswerable question is the future ends to which the U.S. government and citizenry might want to apply their armed forces.
The unexpectedly smashing victory over Iraq seems also to have crushed the remnants of the "Vietnam syndrome" that had survived the invasions of Grenada and Panama and newly whetted an American appetite for military action. In 1971, 46 percent of respondents to a Gallup Poll said that war was "an outmoded way of settling differences among nations." Last month, only 17 percent of those asked agreed with the proposition.
World affairs, as the past few years have amply shown, can be wildly unpredictable. But when pressed, few analysts can conjure up a realistic contingency quite as demanding as the gulf deployment -- even if the United States did set out aggressively to enforce the "New World Order" Mr. Bush has been talking up.
"It's hard to find another enemy out there that is as extensive as Iraq was," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis., said in an interview. "The other people who fall into the same thug category don't have that same kind of force in terms of size."
One candidate that comes up for discussion is the Korean peninsula, where the United States still maintains some 40,000 troops. North Korea boasts 1.1 million troops and 3,500 tanks. South Korean forces are smaller, but not nearly as weak as in the early 1950s. Even if North Korea did reinvade the south, moreover, it is unlikely to have the active Chinese support it enjoyed 40 years ago.
"Iraq was a very unusual case of the kind of crises that we would face," Senate Armed Services Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed. "I think the crises would be more along the lines of Grenada or Liberia," where the Marine Corps last year mounted an operation to protect U.S. citizens during a bloody civil war, he said. "They would just require fast reaction, an evacuation or something like that. I don't envision us facing the fourth largest army in the world any time soon."
The evaporation of the canonical Cold War scenario -- a standing-start Warsaw Pact blitzkrieg into Western Europe -- also makes all the difference in the world, giving the Pentagon the freedom to focus more of its attention elsewhere. "We believe that [Warsaw Pact] threat has very significantly diminished," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said in late February. "It's no longer necessary for us to size our forces based on that fundamental assumption that has been dominant in our military thinking now for 40-some years."
In the end, of course, the partisan defense debate here, or the perilous unfolding of history elsewhere, could dictate that a build-down never happens. Should events in the Soviet Union or the Third World "take a further dramatic turn for the worse," Mr. Cheney's annual report to Congress, published at the end of February, warns, "we may need to slow our decline to the low force levels we are now planning for the mid-1990s, or even halt our decline at more robust force levels than we are currently projecting."
David Morrison is the national security correspondent for National Journal.