Meeting the enemy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE QUICK DISPATCH of not one but two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Indian Ocean relief effort demonstrates the formidable reach of the American military -- still. The infantry may be tied down in Iraq, the Army Reserve may be heading toward the breaking point -- as The Sun's Tom Bowman reported last week -- but there's plenty of firepower in reserve. The Navy has been dealing out food, water and medicine this time rather than missiles, but there can be no mistaking its ability to act when called upon.

At the same time, though, there should be no overstating its ability, either.

The Navy's rapid response to the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster has offered welcome relief to people in the devastated region and has been good for America's worldwide image, as well.

Yet in one sense it helps to cast into relief the strengths and weaknesses of the military today.

An aircraft carrier is not a particularly efficient vehicle for delivering aid and succor to scattered, ravaged villages; a few dozen Navy helicopters are able to accomplish only a fraction of what needs doing.

Of course, neither helicopters nor ships were designed for that job, but they were what the United States had available for the mission.

And the same goes for wartime: An aircraft carrier is a powerful weapon against a conventional foe, but it could prove to be too large, too remote and too unwieldy against unconventional forces that might one day take to the waters of an island nation such as, for instance, Indonesia.

It's the same problem the Army ran into in Iraq: very effective at battlefield victory, less so at maintaining control over a prolonged period.

Right now, the Pentagon is looking at a significant redeployment of its dollars to shore up its continuing effort in Iraq. Less money will be spent on remote technology and a lot more on boots and bullets. One of the programs in line for a hit is the Navy's ambitious shipbuilding effort.

Resources, in other words, are limited. That poses difficult questions: What kind of military does the United States need? One that could win a war at sea? One that could fight the North Korean army? Or one that could maintain a successful occupation of a country like Iraq?

In years to come, should the land, sea and air forces of the United States be focused on counterinsurgency warfare, or actions against terrorism, or conflict with the military of a relatively modern, industrial nation?

There is no obvious right answer -- except that the experience of the Army Reserve makes it clear that America cannot maintain a defense against all of the above, except with great sacrifice. Crucial decisions lie ahead. The time for an open and honest debate is now.

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