Forces: October 8, 1999


Where Have All The Soldiers Gone?: Last week an Army Reserve non-com sent me the following question, via email: "Dear Austin-- Check out this list of military forces. Can you name the country?

"709,000 regular service soldiers. 293,000 reserve troops. 8 Army divisions. 20 air force and navy air wings with 2,000 combat aircraft. 232 strategic bombers. 13 ballistic missile subs. 500 ICBMs. 4 aircraft carriers. 121 surface ships and subs.'

"Is this country Russia? Red China? Great Britain?'

"Answer: These are the American military forces that have disappeared since the 1992 elections."

Data off the Internet requires close scrutiny. I quibble with several numbers. If late 1992 is the baseline, by my count, active duty forces have dropped around 550,000 and the Army's lost 7 divisions (2nd Armored Division disappeared in 1991). The ICBM reduction figure is high and the bomber figure exaggerates.

But my quibbles are cheap shots. This decade's reduction in US military combat forces has been dramatic. This reduction has been an bipartisan process since the mid-80s. We won the Cold War and carrying a huge military establishment designed to defeat the Soviet Union no longer made economic or military sense.

That being noted, US leadership has yet to determine what kind of force makes economic and military sense in the post-Cold War's Millennium Era. The biggest problem remains "What's our grand strategy?" Lurking behind this question is "Who's the enemy?" The Bush and Clinton Administrations --albeit in their own ways-- both identified "instability" as "the enemy."

Okay, they're right. But "instability" is one tough hombre. It's a shape-changing devil. Economics, damaged ecology, historical hatreds, personality cults, you-name-it can create political instability that may imperil peace and prosperity.

The Clinton Administration's greatest long-term strategic failure is that it has drained and exhausted --almost demoralized-- the U.S. military in its often justified but erratic and poorly-prosecuted attempts to check violent instability.

The next administration, Democrat or Republican, must align US foreign policy goals with military, economic, and political capabilities. That's a huge order. How the world's "indispensable nation" (Madeleine Albright's apt phrase) will act to shape the globe's political landscape while reacting to the inevitable shape-defying crises should be a central issue in next year's elections.

Too complex? Too bad, because it's there even if it doesn't collapse into a TV soundbite. 

What do the candidates need to address? Obviously, "Heartland America" must be protected. This allows for freedom of American action around the globe. National missile defense is slowly becoming a bipartisan objective. We must be able to stop rogue nation ICBMs. Counter-terror intelligence initiatives must be pursued. Improving intelligence gathering and analysis improves all levels of diplomatic and defense activity.

All but the most extreme isolationists recognize that America must be able to project military power to achieve political goals. The next president needs to know that the military future is knowledge and speed. America needs military forces that can rapidly acquire intelligence data and have the strategic and tactical speed to make effective use of that knowledge, for waging war or keeping peace. 

The next administration will have to create quick deploying, multi-capable forces DESIGNED to deal with complex, unstable situations. True "Joint air-ground forces" for fast, long-range, and sustained operations must be created --sustained being a key element. Anyone familiar with Orde Wingate's deep operations in WWII Burma knows the basic concept isn't new, but our current military structures, even flexible Marine task organizations featuring the V-22 tilt-rotor airplane, don't maximize the advantages inherent in new information and logistics technologies.

Alas, forging the political component of an "aligned American strategy" may be an even tougher job for the next president. At least the military takes orders. Diplomats, Congress, business, humanitarian organizations -- they're a herd of cats.

As Clinton's experience attests, pressure always exists to "do something" when a crisis occurs. With "Instability" as the enemy, the question of what constitutes a vital American interest has been continually begged.

In the coming campaign the candidates must address that complex but oh so central question.-- Austin Bay 


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