- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

After the debacle of Vietnam, there was a backlash against military preparedness born of disillusionment. It was felt the United States was not capable of waging war outside Europe, and thus should pull in its horns.

The result was a hollow and demoralized military, rescued just in time by President Ronald Reagan. With a military rebuilt in the 1980s, the U.S. won not only the Cold War but the first post-Cold War war in the Persian Gulf.

Now, critics of President George W. Bush's rebuilding of the military from the neglect it suffered in the 1990s are using the opposite argument; that cuts can now be made in U.S. forces without lessening our ability to act abroad.

Retired Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan, writing in Defense News for a group called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, argued that none of the new weapons under development are needed because "the U.S. military's impressive performance in Afghanistan has been executed with weapons that have been around for years." Cutting out new aircraft, artillery and warships, along with "scaling back national missile defense and overseas troops deployments" could take $50 billion out of the current defense budget, which Adm. Shanahan would use for education and health-care programs.

Charles V. Pena, a senior defense analyst at the Cato Institute, claims on the Cato web site, "Significant savings could be achieved by reducing the number of active-duty Army divisions by half, active-duty Marine Corps divisions by two-thirds, Air Force fighter wings by nearly one-third, Navy ships by one-third, and carrier battle groups with air wings by one-half.

"This smaller force would still be enough to fight the small- and medium-sized conflicts associated with the war on terrorism." And despite the global threat posed by terrorism and rogue states, Mr. Pena believes a military "sized for two theaters of operation in overlapping time frames" makes "no sense in the post-Cold War environment."

The basic problem with this argument is that despite all the emotion stirred up by the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Afghan campaign was a punitive expedition, not a real war. Afghanistan had no ballistic missiles or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or even a conventional military of any size. The poorly armed Taliban and al Qaeda forces numbered about 50,000, one-tenth the size of the Iraqi forces engaged in Desert Storm. U.S. forces could attack with impunity.

This is not to diminish the valor of those Americans who fought (and died) in the campaign. War is never easy at the individual level. But in terms of national effort even with the flareups of recent days the war has been as one-sided as anything in the annals of Queen Victoria's "little wars" of the 19th century. We cannot simply assume that the next challenge (and the one after that) will be so easy. The battle of Omdurman did not prepare the British for the Somme.

Enemies will not simply collapse under bombs and missile launched from a safe distance. The Afghan war was not like the Balkan air campaigns of 1995 and 1999, which were meant only to coerce Serbia into diplomatic settlements.

The campaign in Afghanistan was an exercise in "decisive warfare" meant to overthrow the Taliban regime and sweep the country of al Qaeda terrorists. There was no question that ground forces would be needed. President Bush was determined not to just "pound sand" as his predecessor had done.

The United States was able to enlist local armed opposition groups to provide the bulk of the ground troops, but such forces cannot always be relied upon to do the job alone. In Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait, American intervention numbering in each case around 500,000 men was needed precisely because local allies could not halt aggression from more powerful neighbors.

In Panama, there were no local, armed allies available when Washington intervened to remove the regime of Manuel Noriega.

When U.S. troops were halted short of Baghdad in 1991, the expectation was that local insurgents or a palace coup would toppled Saddam Hussein. It didn't happen.

Even in Afghanistan, local warlords have not always been reliable. To fill the gap, first Marines and now elements of two Army divisions (10th Mountain and 101st Airborne) have been engaged in fierce firefights with enemy remnants.

If the Bush administration is contemplating military action against larger states that support terrorism or are developing WMD, then the task will be even more difficult. Battles waged against any of the "axis of evil" states (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) would be on a scale and intensity far beyond what has been seen in Afghanistan, and well beyond the capabilities of any local "militia." Nothing would destroy public confidence quicker than another Bay of Pigs disaster.

The United States needs to rebuild its conventional war-fighting strength. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee last month, "We have no choice but to fight and win today's war on terror; but we must also modernize our forces for the wars we may have to fight later in this decade."

At the time of the Persian Gulf war, the Army had 18 active duty divisions. Eight of these fought in the Gulf along with two Marine divisions.

Today, the Army has only 10 divisions. Units that fought with valor in the Gulf were brought home and disbanded.

It was the inability of the Iraqi Army to stand against U.S. troops that drove enemies of America to resort to terrorism and other asymmetrical strategies. It would be foolish to abandon the military superiority that has pushed our adversaries into the margins and which will be needed to push them the rest of the way off the pages of history.


William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council


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