AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The Clinton administration is crafting a new post-Cold War defense strategy that calls for reshaping the military to handle fewer wars at once as a means of enabling the White House to continue deep cuts in defense spending without reducing U.S. commitments around the world.
The strategy would abandon the current policy of supporting a military force big enough to fight -- and win -- two regional conflicts simultaneously. Instead, it would maintain only enough might to win one major war and to mount a holding action to contain a second enemy until more forces became available.
Under the plan, the United States would use air power and some ground troops to hold a second aggressor at bay until the main elements of U.S. forces defeated the first. Then, the military would redeploy all of its forces to the second theater, presumably winning there as well.
Defense Department officials contend that even with such a narrowed capability, the administration would still be able to meet current U.S. military commitments around the world and slash Pentagon spending by the 21 percent that President Clinton has planned through fiscal 1997.
The strategy, put together by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and known informally as "win-hold-win," was reported in yesterday's editions the New York Times and confirmed by officials traveling with Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Mr. Aspin was in Europe this past week meeting with NATO officials and has been vacationing in Venice, Italy.
Mr. Aspin's spokesman, Vernon A. Guidry, told reporters that other options are being considered and that Mr. Aspin will make no final decision until he has discussed the options with other top presidential national security advisers.
Officials conceded privately that the plan -- almost identical to one that Mr. Aspin drafted last year as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee -- is emerging as the favorite and is likely to be the centerpiece of the "bottom-up review" of defense policy that the secretary has ordered.
The proposal constitutes a major departure from the post-Cold War defense strategy set by the Bush administration in 1990, which called for maintaining a so-called "base force" capable of winning two major regional conflicts at once.
Under the base-force plan, the United States has supported enough forces to win both a Persian Gulf-size war and a regional conflict in, say, Korea -- each with overwhelming strength. The base force includes 12 divisions of troops, 12 Navy aircraft carriers and 24 tactical air wings.
Under the win-hold-win strategy, the Clinton administration would maintain only enough military strength to win the Persian Gulf-size war and keep North Korea, say, at bay long enough to enable U.S. forces to mop up the gulf-size operation. It then would mount a major offensive to win the second conflict.
According to the Pentagon plan, that strategy would require only 10 divisions of troops, 10 Navy aircraft carriers and 20 tactical air wings, supplemented by 100 ready-to-deploy attack bombers.
The holding action in a second theater of operations would depend primarily on air power.