Keeping America Mighty

Despite an impressive victory in Afghanistan, Bush is still pushing for a major overhaul

As a Presidential candidate, George W. Bush painted a bleak picture of the U.S. military. With its inflation-adjusted budget sliced by 27% since the Soviet Union's collapse, the Defense Dept. couldn't afford to modernize its cold war programs--or even pay soldiers enough to keep military families off food stamps. The Pentagon, Bush argued, had to be transformed to fight different wars in the 21st century. And he placed the blame squarely on President Bill Clinton. "The last seven years have been wasted in inertia and idle talk," the GOP candidate declared at the Citadel on Sept. 23, 1999. "Now, we must shape the future with new concepts, new strategies, new resolve."

But a funny thing happened on the road to Kandahar. The supposedly tattered U.S. military took a scant two months to help crush Afghanistan's Taliban regime. The reason: The U.S. military has made great strides in changing itself from a huge, land-based force braced for a massive Soviet armored thrust in Europe into a smaller, smarter, technologically adept fighting machine. From precision-guided bombs to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the U.S. military wields such power that "the character of war has changed," says Alexander Saveliev, a defense analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

That has broad strategic implications. Having demonstrated its might, Washington is poised to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty without fretting about criticism. And through no coincidence, China has abandoned the idea of building an air force or blue-water navy to challenge the U.S.

Yet battlefield success hasn't quelled fierce debates about the military's future. Still pushing for a major overhaul, Bush declared on Dec. 11 that "this revolution in our military is only beginning." With the political capital Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accumulated as an anti-terror warrior, the Administration can push toward its goals of even more agile, quicker-responding forces. To get there, though, it has to resolve some major questions, such as whether to emphasize long-range bombers over shorter-range jet fighters dependent on nearby basing.

MISSILES OR TANKS? The biggest challenge is to find the right size for the U.S. weapons arsenal. Paying for an expensive missile defense system will probably mean shrinking the number of tanks, planes, and ships. Such cuts would also provide funds to make sure spare-parts shortages and other problems don't undermine America's high-tech edge.

A look at potential hot spots suggests that some cutbacks carry few risks. Take the Taiwan Strait. China has little ability to mount an amphibious assault on Taiwan, so it can't do much more than intimidate Taiwan with its missiles. "But you don't control the ground just by launching missiles at another country," notes former Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre. A Rand study last year found the U.S. could tip the balance in Taiwan's favor by sending just 100 land-based fighters, two carrier groups, and a dozen heavy bombers.

Similarly, Seoul may not need much help from Washington. South Korea has a well-trained and well-equipped army that would face a North Korean force with primitive weapons, supported by a basket-case economy. "The North Korean military is the most overrated threat the U.S. faces," says Loren B. Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington (Va.) think tank.

More firepower would be needed if the U.S. faced off with Iraq. It would have to rely on opposition Kurds and Shiites, who aren't as strong as Afghanistan's dissidents. But the Iraqi army is weaker than it was during Desert Storm, so the U.S. wouldn't need the vast force it used then.

None of this means the Pentagon can afford to stand pat. Most defense experts agree that more money should be poured into unmanned surveillance vehicles such as the Predator and Global Hawk. "We have a serious shortage," Rumsfeld told BusinessWeek on Dec. 4. Predators, some of which carry missiles, can circle for hours and show commanders where both friendly and hostile troops are. Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics are the leaders in the field, but the Europeans will probably jump in. And Boeing Co. recently created a unit to start making unmanned combat aircraft.

Precision-guided munitions will be a priority as well. In addition to laser-guided bombs, which clouds can blind, the U.S. is deploying the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), which use global-positioning systems (GPS) to find their targets in any weather. It's hard to say exactly how well these bombs have performed in Afghanistan, but there has clearly been some progress. "You transform warfare if you can hit what you aim at," says former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Beyond these areas of agreement, however, the Bush Administration will have to make some difficult trade-offs. When the country returns to normalcy, and defense must compete for money with Social Security and Medicare, the Pentagon won't be able to afford upgraded missile defense, new high-tech weapons--and the replacement of all of its aging gear. The Bush team has pledged to junk cold war relics, but has not yet identified a single major weapon to cut. Indeed, the Pentagon still plans to spend $340 billion on 3,700 manned fighters: Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-22 Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing's Superhornet.

Many experts question whether all of these are needed. The accuracy of precision-guided munitions means fewer sorties are required to destroy a target. And the Air Force is slated to acquire thousands of new fighters at a time when access to land bases is increasingly problematic. In Afghanistan, bombers and carrier-based planes did the work. "Putting all this money into three tactical air programs seems crazy to me," says Michael G. Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments.

On the other hand, the Pentagon cautions against extracting too many lessons from Afghanistan. In the earlier Kosovo conflict, Air Force fighters pulled the load, notes General John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff. Adds Rumsfeld: "It would be a mistake to look at Afghanistan and think of it as a model that would be replicated."

TRADEOFF. Indeed, if Afghanistan proves anything, it's that we don't know what the next threat will be. That's why some defense analysts are urging the military to hedge its bets. It could, for example, buy a smaller fleet of land-based fighters than it originally planned, and spend the money that it saves on bombers and carrier-based planes, which don't depend on the kindness of neighbors for bases. Some in the Pentagon want to develop a new bomber or have Northrop Grumman restart the B-2 bomber production line. Air Force brass balk at both options, fearing new spending on a bomber would come at the expense of the F-22.

As powerful as Rumsfeld is in the flush of the Afghan war, this sort of resistance from the services will make it hard for Bush to achieve a radical transformation of the military. But the Pentagon will evolve regardless. Candidate Bush underestimated this in 1999--and so have many of America's foes. But it is something they underestimate at their peril.

By Stan Crock in Washington, with Stanley Holmes in Seattle, Dexter Roberts in Beijing, and bureau reports

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