The Problem With the Strategy

July 1, 1994

June 6, Washington, D.C.–Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) agrees “wholeheartedly” with the US defense strategy. He just doesn’t believe it. In his opinion, the Pentagon does not have either the forces or the money to deliver on its plan.

The difficulty began in March 1993, when the first Clinton budget proposal cut defense spending–without calculating the effect–by roughly double the amount previously planned. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin found himself scrambling to devise a strategy to fit the budget promise. Midway through his Bottom-Up Review, Mr. Aspin floated a trial balloon for a hybrid strategy called “Win-Hold-Win,” but that was shot down within weeks.

Mr. Aspin then fell back to the current strategy: that the armed forces will be prepared to fight and win two major regional conflicts, almost simultaneously. His March budget, however, would not cover that strategy or even the skimpy forces he proposed to go with it. The Air Force, for example, was to be left with only twenty fighter wings and “up to” 184 operational bombers.

Mr. Skelton said in October that “simple third-grade arithmetic” demonstrated that the Bottom-Up Review force cannot handle two conflicts. Others, including Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have also expressed doubts.

The next Clinton budget, sent to Congress in February 1994, made further adjustments, including a reduction in bombers. Questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, said “the Bottom-Up Review force structure is an abstraction” whereas “the budget is a reality.” He said the reduced bomber fleet should be able to cover the target set once it is equipped with enough precision guided munitions around the turn of the century, but he acknowledged that the Air Force “backed into bomber cuts” to meet the budget.

By the end of this year, the Air Force will have fewer than 1,000 fighters in the active-duty fleet. It is projected to have only 107 operational bombers for the long-range attack mission in 1995. Airlift, crucial to deployment of a force based primarily in the United States, is uncertain.

In a recent letter to the new Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, Mr. Skelton said that without more forces and money, the armed forces cannot fight two simultaneous conflicts. “You can be sure that potential adversaries will come to the same conclusion,” he added. If the nation will not support the two-conflict strategy, it must consider a different strategy. A sequential “force generation” strategy, for example, would at least be honest and credible and might be something the armed forces could actually handle, provided they aren’t cut any more, Mr. Skelton said.

He is dead right in his criticism. The Administration’s budgets and force projections do shortchange the strategy. “I would be willing to bet,” Mr. Skelton told Mr. Perry, “that if you were to poll the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the unified commanders, you would find total agreement about the stated policy but serious questions about being able to carry it out.” He is probably right about that, too. It is not, however, time to give up on the strategy to accommodate a drifting budget. Instead, we need to flesh out the strategy with realistic forces and funding. The tortured efforts over the past year to forge an accommodation are not convincing.

In 1992, before anyone ever heard of a Bottom-Up Review, the Joint Military Net Assessment said the Bush Administration’s Base Force–which included 26.5 Air Force fighter wings–would be pushed to respond to more than one regional conflict at a time. (Before adjustments were made, the Bottom-Up team set the two-conflict requirement at twenty-four fighter wings.) The Rand Corp. concluded in 1993 that a single major regional conflict would take ten Air Force fighter wings, eighty heavy bombers, and ninety percent of the airlift fleet. Rand reminded us that US deployments to the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf conflicts exceeded the prewar expectations of planners, and by a factor of two in critical areas. The Gulf War ultimately required a third more fighter forces than the strategy had allocated for a regional conflict.

This year, the Congressional Budget Office, using a simulation model named “Mirkwood,” struggled to validate the Administration’s program. Mirkwood had to allow three months for full deployment to the first crisis, a month’s separation between the crises, and two months for deployment to the second crisis. It presumed that airlift problems would be solved somehow and ignored such factors as attrition, which CBO admits could “influence the outcome of the war.”

Almost everyone–Mr. Aspin, Mr. Perry, Mr. Skelton, and President Clinton–agrees that the nation cannot be left vulnerable on other fronts should it be engaged in a regional conflict elsewhere. All agree on power in reserve for the unexpected and the unknown.

The strategy hangs on too many optimistic assumptions about sufficiency of forces, timing, coordination of widely separated operations, and shuttling of critical assets between conflicts. Without more depth in the force structure, it is not convincing enough to be credible.