Defense Secretary Les Aspin's "bottom-up review" of military needs in the post-Cold War world is a good-faith effort to come to grips with strategic, fiscal and political realities. It is incremental, which is not only a good thing in itself but a reflection of President Clinton's reluctance to tangle with the military establishment he must command after spurning it in his youth.
In two major concessions to the Navy, Mr. Aspin has agreed to maintain 12 aircraft carriers and to build another nuclear submarine. The case for the 12 carriers, rather than the 10 once favored by the administration, is highly persuasive if the nation is to retain a capacity to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. So far as the third nuclear submarine to maintain the Groton, Conn., shipyard is concerned, Congress would be well advised to knock it out. This is a Cold War holdover whose huge cost cannot be justified.
Although the Pentagon was not releasing dollar estimates for its new plan, it was described as within the defense-spending limits of the Clinton budget Congress just approved. While some XTC liberals will complain that the Aspin cuts in force levels do not go far enough, legislators as a group are loath to slash deeper while the economy remains weak. For many politicians already traumatized by the wide-scale closing of military bases, Mr. Aspin's warning of more to come may be all the austerity they care to contemplate.
The new defense blueprint envisages a force structure 1.4 million strong that will easily maintain the U.S. as the world's sole remaining military superpower. Spending will continue at the Cold War levels that prevailed before the budget-busting spurt of the Reagan era. Approximately 100,000 American troops will remain on duty in Europe and an additional contingent of almost that number will stand guard in the Pacific. A U.S. military presence will be projected almost continually in the Persian Gulf area and the Pentagon will be ready to supply peace-keeping or peace-enforcing troops for United Nations operations almost anywhere.
Mr. Aspin plans a wide array of advanced technology weapons, many of them geared for regional conflicts. The strategic arsenal will be maintained, within the limits of the SALT I and II treaties, which is just as well considering the reluctance of some former Soviet states to relinquish their nuclear-club status to Russia.
In a matter as fundamental as the nation's security, the Aspin "bottom-up" plan will provide the underpinning for an evaluation of what the nation needs and what it can afford in light of domestic requirements and world problems. It is by no means the definitive answer. The secretary's strategic concepts deserve intellectual challenge. His efforts to maintain a military industrial base should be judged against procurement practices that waste billions. His choices of which weapon systems to scrap and which to develop are open to question. Now let's hear from Congress.