A DECADE AGO, Pentagon critics wondered whether all the high-cost military hardware bought during the 1980s would perform as expected. It did. As the Persian Gulf war moved toward its spectacular conclusion, the doubters were silenced.
Today, America's military superiority is unparalleled. In technology and training, our forces are well ahead of any potential adversary -- a position they are expected to hold for a decade or more.
But after that, the concerns begin to multiply.
The weapons deployed in the gulf were based on research and testing that occurred many years before. Today, a growing number of military analysts are worried that the Clinton administration might be doing too little to ensure America's lead is maintained.
The issue involves more than aggregate amounts of spending for research and development.
Before World War II, France spent more than Germany, but Germany spent more wisely. The Germans prepared for a war of mobility, while France relied more on fixed fortifications. The French even developed a superior tank, but German thinking -- expressed in a revolutionary fighting doctrine called "blitzkrieg" -- had been re-oriented for a war of rapid maneuver. France was overwhelmed in six weeks.
France was the victim of what military analysts call an "asymmetrical shift," a period when existing weapons and tactics are unexpectedly devalued by new weapons and new approaches. Another such period was the 1920s and '30s, when the aircraft carrier displaced the battleship as the preeminent source of naval power.
Today, even as the war in Serbia produces more displays of precision weapons, it's clear that a similar shift is under way. The earliest clues appeared in the Gulf War, in the form of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. These weapons were inaccurate, but their psychological and strategic impact was considerable.
Scud attacks on Israeli cities put pressure on Tel Aviv to retaliate, a move that would have driven Arab forces from the allied coalition. To foreclose that threat, military planners were forced to divert substantial air power to Scud hunts, most of which were unsuccessful. Although a few stationary launchers were destroyed, intelligence analysts were unable to confirm that a single mobile launcher had been hit.
Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the looming asymmetrical threat is most evident on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea has stockpiled missiles and has threatened to equip them with chemical warheads. These weapons are widely dispersed in caves. No reliable defense exists to defeat them.
At the same time, only a few ports and airfields are available to receive U.S. reinforcements. If war broke out, these ports and airfields would be high-priority targets for missiles possibly carrying weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, this is a scenario for a conflict with massive casualties.
Much of the concern over the spread of missile technology has emphasized the direct threat to U.S. territory. Little attention has been paid to a related problem that military planners call "access denial." Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, boiled the problem down to a what-if question: "What if the president said, 'Send in the Marines,' and they couldn't go?"
Roberts, a Kansas Republican, is chairman of a new Senate subcommittee created to examine a variety of "emerging threats," including access denial. The panel convened its first meeting last month, and one of those testifying was Krepinevich.
"Adversaries know they can't take us on directly by building an air force or a better army to defeat our tanks in open battle, so they're taking the indirect approach -- threatening the means by which we bring forces into an area," Krepinevich said in a telephone interview. "You have a situation where our traditional way of projecting power -- moving assets through ports and sustaining them from those locations -- may be increasingly at risk."
Policy-makers, Krepinevich said, face three options: build an effective missile defense, change the way forces are inserted into trouble spots, or accept that some deployments might "look more like Omaha Beach on D-Day than Desert Shield."
Krepinevich and others argue that a "revolution in military affairs" is profoundly changing the way wars will be fought, and that to stay ahead the Pentagon must undergo what amounts to a transformation.
The conflict in the Balkans offers an illustration of power-projection through forward deployment, as well as a couple of additional what-if questions: What if we couldn't base fighters in Italy or Apache helicop-ters in Albania? In the future, analysts say, U.S. forces will have to be able to operate farther from resupply points, which means they must have weapons that are lighter and more lethal. In addition, more weapons systems must be available that don't need foreign "access," such as the Missouri-based B-2 bomber.
In a future crisis, American units might arrive by stealth cargo planes, operate from floating bases beyond the range of many shore-based weapons and rely more on drones or robot-weapons. Because military concentrations are enticing targets, fleets and air forces will be more dispersed, which means support-and-supply units must also be dispersed.
All of which hints at a military that is trained and organized differently, and there's the rub.
Effecting this sort of transformation will require substantial funding for research, testing and experimentation when the strain on the defense budget is increasing. Deployments such as those in the Balkans add billions of dollars to defense costs. Meanwhile, equipment used by the current force is wearing out or in short supply, as in the case of cruise missiles.
Research and development funding has been cut less than the defense budget as a whole, but the Clinton administration's latest budget calls for R&D; to decrease to free up money for modernization. Such a move could increase U.S. vulnerability to asymmetrical threats.
The Pentagon, for example, plans to spend $300 billion during the next few years on new tactical fighters -- short-range planes tied to forward bases -- and upgrading Army divisions.
"We're still talking about heavy formations that have to be brought in through ports or aboard heavy aircraft," said Krepinevich. "I don't think these issues are being well considered by the administration."
Other analysts, such as Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation, view these broad changes as more evolutionary than revolutionary, and argue that a clean break with the past is unlikely. In any desperate conflict, they add, quantity -- sheer numbers -- becomes a quality in its own right. The Pentagon, says Spring, is not spending too much to upgrade air and ground forces.
To be sure, military planning is a matter of balance, not a series of either-or choices. But with the risks presented by missile proliferation and other emerging threats, a defense budget calling for R&D; cuts is one that threatens to rob the future to pay for the present -- and one that might drastically increase the risks faced by future service men and women.
"We don't want to fight tomorrow's war in terms of yesterday's tactics," Roberts said. "We're in a race against time, and we better win it."
E. Thomas McClanahan is the Sunday Review editor for the Kansas City Star. This article was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Pub Date: 04/25/99