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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Defense Review Fights for Credibility

WASHINGTON -- Barely a year after it was unveiled, the Pentagon's highly touted "bottom-up review" of U.S. defense policy -- intended to serve as the Clinton administration's blueprint for the post-Cold War military -- is largely in tatters.


As envisioned by former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, the review was supposed to clean out old Cold War thinking, forge a new role for the military and yield a smaller but tougher fighting force. Aspin claimed that it did exactly that.


"It has produced a lean, mobile, high-tech force, ready to protect Americans in this new time," he told reporters proudly last September, when the new study was completed. He added it was "based upon the real dangers that face America in the new era.'"


But one year later, the review has become a liability, derided by outside defense experts of all stripes and given only a lukewarm embrace by the Defense Department's new management.


Liberals complain that the review's central recommendation -- that the United States maintain a large enough force to fight two major regional wars "nearly simultaneously" -- is merely a holdover from Cold War days and is out of sync with the relatively low-intensity conflicts that have broken out in Rwanda, Haiti and elsewhere.


Conservatives charge that the administration's defense budget is nowhere near sufficient to finance the force that the review says would be needed.


And to top it off, Defense Secretary William Perry, who moved up from deputy secretary after Aspin resigned last December, conceded recently that the military would not, anyway, be able to meet the goal of fighting two major regional wars for several more years.


"The bottom-up review stated fairly clearly ... that the ability to meet the two-war contingency hinged on some force enhancements being made," Perry told The Navy Times in an interview last month.


But he warned that modernizing forces -- by outfitting warplanes with precision-guided bombs and missiles, for example -- is "going to take a few years. To have those force enhancements then capable of fighting two full-scale major regional contingencies is a couple of years ahead of us."


Dov Zakheim of Systems Planning Corp., a defense-oriented technology and strategy company, said the administration is clearly "torn'" over the review. "They recognize they don't have the resources to support it but they have no alternative," he said. "They're caught between a strategic rock and a fiscal hard place."


With budget pressures already intense, the administration is finding itself in the ironic position of having to use the review -- which initially was designed to help justify further cuts in military spending -- to protect the current defense budget level instead.


Defense Department officials now cite the review to warn would-be budget-raiders in Congress that, if they cut the military budget any more than Clinton already has proposed, the ability of the military to meet the new goals will be in jeopardy.


As a result, such outside critics as Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Defense Budget Project, a nonpartisan defense-monitoring group, are calling on Perry to review the review, with an eye toward scrapping it.


Although Defense Department officials insisted that Perry still fully supports the review's conclusions, insiders say John Deutch, the deputy secretary of defense, is quietly giving the document a second look and may end up rewriting it entirely. Indeed, in a preliminary memo made public Monday, officials warned that budget pressures could well force the administration to cancel some of the military's most pressing big-ticket future-year weapons programs, including the F-22 fighter and the Army's Commanche helicopter.


It is not certain yet how many programs will be cut, but the military has begun to complain about the prospect of the reductions. Strategists say the services already are being stretched.


By far the most serious criticism of the review is that it has not produced recommendations for the kinds of sweeping post-Cold War changes in U.S. military policy that Aspin appeared to have in mind.


Despite the demise of the Soviet Union, analysts said, the review would leave military policy essentially unchanged from the Bush days. It calls for only marginal troop reductions and almost no major weapons cuts.


Analyst David Isenberg of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization, contended the review's scenario of two major regional wars is a throwback to the Cold War, when the Pentagon was concerned about fighting two and a half full-scale wars in Europe and Asia.


And many analysts questioned Aspin's use of the 1991 Persian Gulf war as the standard for figuring future U.S. military requirements.


For now, Clinton seems to be stuck with the review. "For the moment," Zakheim said, "there's nothing to replace it."