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The Pentagon's War on Thrift

By Lawrence J. Korb
The New York Times, May 22, 1997

Washington -- The Pentagon's latest strategic review marks the third time in the past six years that the Defense Department has tried to adjust its strategy, its budget and the strength of the armed forces to the post-cold war world. But this review, unveiled this week, is essentially an endorsement of the status quo, just as the two previous efforts were.

For the United States to protect its interests and maintain its credibility, the Pentagon planners assert, it must continue to support a strategy that will allow it to fight two large regional wars at the same time.

"If the United States were to forgo its ability to defeat aggression in more than one theater at a time," the report says, "our standing as a global power, as the security partner of choice and the leader of the international community would be called into question."

Called into question by whom and why? The Bush Administration adopted the two-war strategy in 1991. But our experiences in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf demonstrated that the United States doesn't need to be able to fight two wars at once. In 1969, at the height of the cold war and the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration believed the United States was secure enough to adopt a strategy requiring it to be ready to fight only one and a half wars simultaneously.

Because of its current insistence on the two-war strategy, the Pentagon argues that we need no cuts in the number of ground divisions, Air Force fighter wings and aircraft-carrier battle groups. The Pentagon blueprint presumes wars against Iraq and North Korea. But surely Iraq and North Korea do not pose the same threat now as they once did.

Even the Pentagon's own war games -- which assume a North Korean soldier is as effective as an American soldier and more effective than a South Korean one -- cannot justify a need for more than eight Army divisions.

Yet the Pentagon's report, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, insists on 10 divisions.

Since January 1994, President Clinton and Congress have added more than $100 billion to military spending that was deemed necessary in the Pentagon's last review in 1993. The most recent deal between the President and the Republican Congress calls for spending nearly $1.4 trillion between 1998 and 2002, about $17 billion more than the Republicans proposed last year.

Already, the United States spends more than all of its prospective enemies combined. Yet according to the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon needs more money -- at least $10 billion a year more to meet its goal of $60 billion a year just for new weapons. But the report does not explain why we must increase spending on research, development and procurement of weapons by 50 percent. We already spend 40 percent more in these areas than all of our allies combined, 75 percent more than either Russia or China do and 90 percent more than Iraq and North Korea together.

After the Korean War, the Eisenhower Administration reduced military spending significantly and changed both its war strategy and the structure of the armed forces. The Nixon Administration took similar actions after the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon's review offered an opportunity to reshape the military to address the new challenges to American security in the 21st century.

But that opportunity has been squandered.

A better approach would have called for the United States to be able to fight one large war while handling smaller peacekeeping operations elsewhere, with a weapons budget sufficient to maintain our technological edge. This could easily be accomplished with a Pentagon budget that saves at least $100 billion between now and 2002.

If the three-strikes rule were applied to the Pentagon planners behind the Quadrennial Defense Review, they would be out. Maybe it's time to follow House Speaker Newt Gingrich's advice and shrink the Pentagon to a triangle.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration.


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