WASHINGTON -- A broad consensus is emerging among U.S. military planners, defense analysts and former Reagan and Bush administration officials that American forces in Europe can be cut to a level advocated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton without losing significant combat capabilities.
Because this view is shared by an expanding lineup of defense hard-liners in both major political parties, the Bush administration is becoming increasingly isolated on one of the thorniest post-Cold War issues facing the United States and its NATO allies.
President Bush has already ordered the armed services to cut their personnel in Europe to 150,000 by 1995, roughly half the number of forces deployed there during the last years of the Cold War. But his Democratic opponent has proposed a deeper cut to take the force level down to no more than 100,000, and possibly as low as 75,000.
The range proposed by Mr. Clinton has become the most commonly cited "threshold" below which, many defense analysts agree, the ability to respond quickly to fight a European war and to project U.S. military power to the Middle East and north Africa would weaken dramatically.
In the first presidential debate, Mr. Clinton backed a continued U.S. "engagement" in Europe, but said: "I don't believe we can afford nor do we need to keep 150,000 troops in Europe given how much the Red Army, now under the control of Russia, has been cut."
Mr. Bush, who said he was relying on advice from the Pentagon, argued: "Let's not cut into the muscle, and let's not cut down our insurance policy, which is participation of American forces in NATO, the greatest peacekeeping organization ever made."
Independent candidate Ross Perot has not addressed the issue, except to call on European and Asian allies to assume most of the defense burden and pay as much as $100 billion if the U.S. military is to remain overseas.
Congress weighed in this month by sending Mr. Bush a 1993 defense authorization bill that limits U.S. forces in Europe to 100,000 by 1996, a provision that received strong bipartisan support. But Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams declared last week that the administration doesn't consider the limit legally binding because Mr. Bush believes that only the president can decide where to deploy military forces.
Mr. Williams, Army Secretary Michael P.W. Stone and other officials insisted they are not planning to cut forces below 150,000. Remaining in Europe will be the Army's V Corps with two divisions, at least three tactical fighter wings and a carrier battle group.
"Certainly, what I see of the instability in Europe doesn't make me very comfortable about taking the size of the Army down below that 92,200 figure," Mr. Stone said.
But officials have hinted at some flexibility.
Each of the two Army divisions now in Europe could have two brigades instead of three "if we had to go lower," Mr. Stone said. Mr. Williams, who said the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff will review security needs in Europe repeatedly before 1995, also suggested the Bush plan may be open to revision.
Military sources familiar with current planning said the joint staff already has run computer "modeling" exercises to evaluate the combat capabilities of forces below 150,000.
A senior Army war planner, who did not want to be named, said security risks created by having an even smaller forward presence than planned in Europe could be offset by vastly improving the ability to move more forces from the United States to the scene of a crisis.
Mr. Clinton "makes a good point" by giving priority in defense procurement to airlift and sealift programs, the officer said.
The bipartisan Congressional Research Service released an analysis three weeks ago showing that a U.S. force of 100,000 troops "would still represent ready, potent, conventional combat power . . . [and] could meet expected corps, divisional and brigade commitments to NATO in letter, if not in full spirit."
The analysis, prepared by Edward F. Bruner, a former military planner who consulted the joint staff and the U.S. European Command, acknowledged that the smaller force "would have greatly reduced combat power and sustainability in battle," requiring many more U.S.-based reinforcements. But it added that the force still "could respond to crises across the spectrum of modern combat, including armored warfare, anywhere in Europe and the Middle East."
The Army war planner, who favors keeping a strong, corps-size force in Europe, said he could not fault this analysis, which he called "pretty reasonable." He used the same words to describe the analysis of a force level of 75,000, which the CRS study deemed "the minimum for which the United States would be an equal player on the ground in the center of Europe."
In August, an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said a reduction to 100,000 troops would still allow "a credible and influential U.S. presence in Europe," although it warned against deeper cuts before the end of the decade.
Several other groups favoring forces of 100,000 or fewer include the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, whose position was endorsed in June by Frank C. Carlucci and James R. Schlesinger, both defense secretaries for GOP presidents; Richard Helms, CIA director for President Richard M. Nixon; and Paul H. Nitze, an arms control negotiator in the Reagan administration.
"With the Cold War passing, things don't fit in neat ideological categories," said Kim R. Holmes, foreign policy director at the Heritage Foundation.
The leading conservative research group believes U.S. strength can go as low as 25,000 troops after 1997 if the former Soviet threat continues to recede.
Perhaps the strongest support for the Bush plan has come from the RAND Corp., which completed a federally funded study for the U.S. European Command last month that warned that cuts below 150,000 would endanger U.S. security interests.