U.S. Forces Stretched Thin


Huge, costly deployments of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf to face down Saddam Hussein are concentrating the nation's mind on a major security question: Is the American military establishment really capable of fighting two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts, say in Iraq and Korea, while dealing with peace-keeping operations in scattered hot spots like Bosnia and Haiti?

In high ranks of the military, in Congress and among think-tank experts, the answers are equivocal or contradictory. The nightmare scenario this week would have been a North Korean (( thrust southward just as U.S. sealift and airlift capacity was being strained to move a strike force that could defend Kuwait or go over to the attack against Iraq. That the Pyongyang regime stayed its hand could not deflect attention on how far a much reduced Pentagon can be stretched thin and still fulfill its myriad duties in this post Cold War world.

Compounding the problem is a search for a strategy to avoid a "yo-yo" pattern in Iraq -- one in which Mr. Hussein whips up repeated crises that would require the U.S. to deploy to the gulf again and again. The administration's solution of choice would be to establish a demilitarized zone south of the 32nd parallel in Iraq from which heavy ground armor would be excluded. This would coincide with a no-fly zone that has existed since the end of the gulf war and, presumably, would prevent further quick invasion threats by Iraq against Kuwait.

Such a strategy, however, would require that U.S. air units on semi-permanent station in the gulf have air-to-ground as well as air-to-air capability. While this is feasible in financial and physical terms, it adds one more burden to a Pentagon working under budgets that Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman Sam Nunn considers inadequate to maintain current readiness, provide for modernization and fulfill the administration's stated strategic goals. Some estimates peg the budgetary shortfall as high as $80 billion over the next five years.

While critics are quick to raise the cry of a "hollow" military, reductions in Bush defense projections have been marginal. President Clinton, to the dismay of his liberal supporters, has resisted further cuts. Even so, the demands on personnel who may find themselves on duty in Rwanda or Germany, Haiti or Kuwait, Somalia or South Korea, often at sea for long intervals, are such that military men worry about fatigue and frustration.

Clearly, the nation's world position requires something as ambitious as the two-war regional strategy. But when the costs of maintaining an adequate nuclear deterrent and developing new weaponry to guarantee an overwhelming U.S. technological edge are factored in, military spending will have to keep pace with world realities.

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