The Legacy of the Bottom-Up Review

Oct. 1, 2003

The Bottom-Up Review, completed 10 years ago this month, is one of the stranger episodes in the annals of Pentagon force planning.

Briefly, what happened was this. In March 1993, Les Aspin, the new Secretary of Defense, announced a whopping cut to the defense budget. Incredibly, he made his cut without calculating the impact the reduction would have on force capability. That and other details would be worked out in a “Bottom-Up Review” to follow.

The Joint Staff struggled through the summer to bridge the gap between Aspin’s arbitrary budget and a credible defense program. No solution had been found when the report was published in October.

The report called for a substantially reduced force structure, but thus cut, the force could not meet its specified responsibilities. To make matters worse, Aspin admitted that the budget he had announced in March wouldn’t cover even the scaled-down program proposed in his report.

There was a torrent of criticism, but Aspin stood by the Bottom-Up Review, and it became policy. In fact, it went on to shape the defense programs for the rest of the 1990s.

But that gets ahead of the story, which began earlier when Aspin was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Aspin had been a Rhodes scholar, an economics professor, and, for a short time in the 1960s, was a systems analyst in the Pentagon for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Aspin had been in Congress since 1970 and was a leading voice on defense matters.

He had supported the Bush Administration on the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but he hammered the Pentagon regularly. By 1992, he was committed to a very deep reduction of the defense budget and a restructuring of the armed forces. His ideas found favor with Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whose campaign Aspin joined as an advisor.

“ Desert Drizzle”

As Aspin readily acknowledged, the armed forces were already several years into a major drawdown, instigated by Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the concurrence of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

At the end of the Cold War, Powell and Cheney had revamped the defense strategy to focus on regional conflict. They also adopted a new force structure—called the “Base Force”—that would reduce military strength by about 25 percent over six years. Numerous overseas bases were to be closed, and US forces in Europe would be cut by half.

Aspin was not impressed. The Base Force, he said in a speech to the Atlantic Council in January 1992, “did not represent a new conceptual approach for a new security era but was essentially ‘less of the same,’ that is, a downsized force largely shaped by Cold War priorities.”

He said that “American concern about economic threats means that the new American force must be a less expensive one” and that it “must be created from the bottom up, not just by subtracting 25 or 30 or 50 percent from the old Cold War structure.”

Not satisfied with the Base Force projections, Aspin developed “four illustrative options” of his own for sizing the armed forces. He described these in a February 1992 report to the House Armed Services Committee.

Some of his options were more extreme than others, but Aspin signaled that the one he meant to be taken seriously (“the most prudent and promising,” he called it) was Option C.

Option C proposed to cut the Base Force by eight more Air Force wings, three more Army divisions, and 110 more ships. It called for a further reduction of 233,000 military personnel, 93 percent of them to come from the active duty forces.

Aspin developed a benchmark he called “the Desert Storm Equivalent,” the force that was supposedly employed in Gulf War I and approximately the force that would be required for a major regional conflict in the future.

He said that the Desert Storm Equivalent, “the force that mattered,” consisted of “six heavy divisions, an air transportable, early arriving light division, one Marine division on land and an excess of one brigade at sea, 24 Air Force fighter squadrons, 70 heavy bombers, and two early arriving carrier battle groups, building up over time to four carrier battle groups including surface combatants providing Aegis defenses and capability for launching large numbers of cruise missiles.”

Powell and others objected to Aspin’s numbers and conclusions. Powell said that Aspin’s force alternatives were “fundamentally flawed” and “overly simplistic.”

Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said that Aspin’s figure of 24 fighter squadrons amounted to “Desert Drizzle,” not Desert Storm. He said the actual Desert Storm force had been about 11 US Air Force fighter wing equivalents (33 fighter squadrons) plus eight FWEs from allies for a total of 57 land-based fighter squadrons.

Aspin shrugged off the criticism. “McPeak is wrong and the Desert Storm equivalent could do the job,” he said.

The Blind Budget Cut

President Clinton came to office in January 1993 without much interest in foreign policy and spring-loaded to cut defense. When a member of Congress sought to engage him in a discussion about Russia and China, Clinton interrupted, saying, “I just went through the whole campaign and no one talked about foreign policy at all, except for a few members of the press.”

Powell recalled that, at his first meeting with defense leaders, the only defense issue of interest to Clinton was gays in military, and so “we spent the next 105 minutes solely on homosexuals in the armed forces.”

Clinton had chosen Aspin to be his Secretary of Defense, and Aspin had honed and polished his Option C theories. His opportunity to implement them was at hand.

The heyday of big defense budgets was long past, having topped out in 1985. Defense had been cut every year since 1986, but the federal deficit continued, with no politically acceptable way found to resolve it. At a “Budget Summit” in 1990, the Bush Administration and Congress suspended the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings deficit reduction act and in its place established reduction targets for specific categories of spending.

The Budget Summit projected defense cuts of $325 billion between Fiscal 1993 and Fiscal 1997. However, the Bush Administration ordered still more cuts. Bush’s final five-year budget, proposed in January 1993, took defense $113.5 billion below the Budget Summit baseline.

What Aspin had in mind went much beyond that.

In a March 27, 1993, briefing to reporters at the Pentagon, Aspin announced a further reduction of $131.7 billion. Aspin’s proposal roughly doubled the cumulative reductions since 1990 and put defense $245.2 billion below the Budget Summit target. “This budget begins to use resources freed by the end of the Cold War to help at home,” Aspin said. “The President has made clear that the chief threat we face is failure to revitalize our economy.”

Incredibly, Aspin did not know what kind of force the new budget would buy. That would be determined later, he said, in a “Bottom-Up Review.” For the moment, Aspin said, the Administration had only “marginal control” of the details and “what we’re doing is kind of treading water.” However, the general inspiration for his plan was Option C.

Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Aspin’s fellow Democrat, was appalled. “We have been dealing with numbers grabbed out of the air,” he said. “No one knows where these cuts are going to come from.”

As it turned out, the people working on the Bottom-Up Review did not know either where the cuts were to be found. Through the summer of 1993, the Joint Staff worked on force structure options that might fulfill Aspin’s arbitrary budget projections. Details soon leaked to the press.


One of the possibilities explored was a concept called “Win-Hold-Win,” in which US forces would fully prosecute one regional conflict and conduct a holding action on a second front. The second front would not get full attention until victory on the first front.

Win-Hold-Win was subjected to withering criticism, ridiculed as “Win-Lose-Lose” and “Win-Hold-Oops.” Within weeks, it became an untenable position. Aspin soon gave up on Win-Hold-Win, declaring, “After much discussion, we’ve come to the conclusion that our forces must be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts and nearly simultaneously.”

An assumption of the Bottom-Up Review, Aspin said, was that “we don’t know where trouble might break out first or second. We can predict, however, that wherever it does, we don’t have sufficient forces there.”

The Bottom-Up Review envisioned that deploying US forces would respond to regional crisis in four stages:

Phase 1: Halt the Invasion. Minimize the territory and critical facilities an invader can capture. US forces deploy rapidly to the theater and enter battle as quickly as possible.

Phase 2: Build up US combat power in the theater while reducing the enemy’s.

Phase 3: Decisively defeat the enemy in a large-scale air-land counteroffensive.

Phase 4: Provide for postwar stability.

Of these tasks, Aspin said, “achieving an ability to stop an attack quickly is the most critical element in dealing with multiple contingencies.” Airpower was obviously critical in this formulation.

The Four-Option Fig Leaf

The Joint Staff studied requirements for response to two major regional conflicts (MRCs) simultaneously, one MRC at a time, and Win-Hold-Win. Their initial conclusions are shown on the accompanying “Three Alternatives” chart.

When Aspin moved from Win-Hold-Win to two MRCs, he was cornered. On the one hand, he could not walk away from his budget cuts. On the other hand, the two MRC standard was the minimum he could get away with. But the reduced budget he had announced in March was not enough to pay for the two MRC force.

In the formal publication of the Bottom-Up Review, this problem was covered by a fig leaf of sorts. “Simultaneous MRCs” had become “nearly simultaneous MRCs.” (See chart, “A Fourth Choice,” p. 58.) There were now four options instead of three for the force-sizing standard. A new level, “Two Nearly Simultaneous MRCs Plus,” had been added at the top. It was there, obviously, for the purpose of being rejected.

The Bottom-Up Review would go, as Aspin said, with the standard of two nearly simultaneous MRCs. However, the number of Air Force fighter wing equivalents was now the same as for Win-Hold-Win. The previously calculated requirement for 24 wings had been shifted to the new “Plus” level.

Aspin’s Bottom-Up Review force was basically the same as the Win-Hold-Win force, except for the addition of one active and one reserve aircraft carrier. The Bottom-Up Review found 10 carriers sufficient for two nearly simultaneous MRCs, but added the others for “overseas presence.”

Even with the cutting and relabeling, the Bottom-Up Review failed to produce a credible defense program to match the arbitrary budget cuts. Aspin revealed in October that his budget (“the President’s target”) was still $13 billion short of covering the BUR force.

The Flaw That Persisted

It soon became obvious to almost everyone that neither the budgets nor the forces projected were sufficient to cover two MRCs. Defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman reported, “Senior officials in the comptroller’s office of the Department of Defense and the Office of Management and Budget privately admit that the Bottom-Up Review is underfunded by at least $100 billion in outlays over the period through Fiscal 1999, or by a total of at least seven percent to 10 percent.”

Nunn pointed out the fundamental imbalance of requirements and forces. “Our military forces are not capable of carrying out the tasks assumed in the Bottom-Up Review with this kind of eroding defense budget,” he said. “We are either going to have to adjust the resources or our expectation of what military forces will be able to do, because the two are going in opposite directions.”

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military forces and personnel, said that “simple third-grade arithmetic” showed that the Bottom-Up Review force could not cover two major regional conflicts.

Aspin was gone within three months—fired in December 1993 in the aftermath of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. Following Aspin’s policy of using the armed forces more freely in limited conflicts, 18 US soldiers died in a firefight. The brunt of the blame for this fiasco fell on Aspin, who had denied a request for armor to support the force deployed to Somalia.

A major part of the legacy Aspin left behind was the Bottom-Up Review. Despite the critical flaws, the BUR configuration and the two MRC force-sizing standard were the basis for the defense program through the 1990s.

The Shape of the Force

The Base Force is mostly remembered—when it is remembered at all—as the departure point from which the Bottom-Up Review cuts were made. In that context, the Base Force is often regarded as a conservative mark.

In actuality, the Base Force had carried considerable risk, and it took some doing by Colin Powell to convince the military services and the Administration to go along with it.

The Base Force cut of 25 percent was predicated in part on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Warsaw Pact. A “new world order” was anticipated. There would be fewer challenges to US interests and security, and the US could rely more on periodic deployments of forces to demonstrate commitment and protect American interests.

However, there were indications that assumptions about force structure were optimistic. For example, Gulf War I—fought while the Base Force reductions were in progress—required a third more fighter forces than the strategy had estimated.

The Base Force reductions, structures, and budgets might have worked, but the additional cuts piled on by Aspin, Clinton, and the Bottom-Up Review wiped out the possibility.

The expectation of reduced commitments abroad did not last long.

In the 1990s, US forces deployed overseas more frequently than expected, and the deployments were more extensive and longer lasting than anyone had imagined. The force was a third smaller, but the operational tempo was four times what it had been during the Cold War.

The Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997 reconfirmed the two-MRC force-sizing standard although it changed the MRC terminology to MTW (major theater war). The armed forces said repeatedly that they did not have the capability to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously.

(The two MTW force-sizing standard remained in effect until September 2001, when it was replaced by a new standard that was at least as demanding, if not more so.)

The mismatch between strategy and resources persisted through the 1990s—and worsened. The defense budget did not bottom out until 1998, by which time it had been cut for 13 years in a row. Readiness rates were down. Older equipment wore out and was not replaced.

US forces relied on technology—especially long-range precision strike and information technology—to compensate for their smaller size in the conflicts of the 1990s. They were able to strike more targets, more accurately, and from a greater distance than ever before.

But there was no escaping the fact that the force was overused and underfunded. Clinton’s last Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen, said in 1999, “We simply cannot carry out the missions we have with the budget that we have; there is a mismatch. We have more to do and less to do it with, and so that it is starting to show in wear and tear—wear and tear on people, wear and tear on equipment. … We’re either going to have to have fewer missions or more people, but we cannot continue the kind of pace that we have.”

One contingency deployment followed another, and the optempo was too much for the regular force to handle, even in peacetime. A stopgap solution has been to keep large numbers of National Guard and Reserve forces constantly mobilized, but that has become a problem in itself.

The present Secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, opposes increasing the size of the armed forces. Instead, he wants to transfer 320,000 military support jobs to the Civil Service or the private sector.

Shedding support jobs, however, does not fix the shortage of people in operational roles. For that, the services will need to keep many of the 320,000 personnel authorizations formerly filled by support troops and convert them to core military skills. In the aggregate, the number of military, civilian, and contractor personnel must rise.

The imbalance between requirements and resources is not yet solved, and that tracks back to the Bottom-Up Review.

US military force structure at the turn of the century was essentially the Bottom-Up Review force with some further reductions made along the way.

That is impressive staying power for a decision made in 1993 by a Secretary of Defense in office for two months, who had “marginal control” of details, who was blind to the consequences of his action, and who admitted he was “treading water” while he looked for a way to justify his actions.

(To view the tables for this article please open the PDF Version.)

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Heritage of the Force,” appeared in the September issue.