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U.S. Troop Strength Is Questioned : Military: Clinton Administration says it can handle two crises at once. Others wonder if there are enough resources to do so.


WASHINGTON — More urgently than ever before, the new American troop commitments in the Persian Gulf raise the question of whether U.S. military forces are stretched too thin around the globe.

What if, for example, North Korea's insecure political heir, Kim Jong Il, decides to prove his mettle by launching an attack this week on South Korean and American forces? With 63,500 American troops committed to the Persian Gulf and 19,000 in Haiti, would the United States be able to handle another major crisis?

Officially, of course, the answer is "yes."

"I believe we have the capability to do so, and so I would not want North Korea for a moment to think otherwise, or for that matter anyone else," Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference this week.

He and others noted that, despite recent defense cutbacks, the Clinton Administration has explicitly designed its defense strategy to enable the United States to fight two regional wars "almost simultaneously." Indeed, a review of defense policy by the Pentagon last year was carried out with two regional wars in mind: one in the Persian Gulf, the other on the Korean peninsula. (Haiti is considered too small to qualify as a major conflict.)

On Thursday, Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch also said the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf shows that American forces could fight two major wars at nearly the same time despite severe defense budget cuts.

"Sure it's tight, you wouldn't want to have it any other way," Deutch told reporters. Nevertheless, experts said, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether the Pentagon will have the resources to do what its strategy envisions.

"Believe me, we would be breathing hard, real hard, if we had to keep building up in the Gulf and we faced a major contingency in Korea," said Arnold Kanter, a former senior State Department official in the George Bush Administration who is now with the Forum for International Policy. "We're buying no new tanks and very few fighter aircraft. Shipbuilding is way down. We're running out of things to cut."

Moreover, some scholars worry about the cumulative impact of deployments in Haiti and the Persian Gulf on the United States' future war-fighting capability.

"We're picking up long-term commitments in various places," said Elliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"That causes a real strain. The basic rule of thumb is that, for every soldier deployed somewhere, you've got two others either going or coming back and another one or two who have to support the people deployed."

Other experts worry that the deployments in Haiti and the Persian Gulf weaken the Clinton Administration's hand in diplomacy elsewhere.

"We'd have difficulty now in carrying out large-scale supply operations to Korea. It makes you more careful in dealing with (the North Koreans)," said William Clark Jr., former assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Bush Administration publicly warned North Korea that it should not view the war as an opportunity to attack. And over the last three years, while the Bush and Clinton administrations have reduced American troop deployments in Europe rapidly, they have maintained the general levels of deployment in Asia.

The "bottom-up review" carried out in 1993 under former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin originally was designed to meet a strategy called "win-hold-win"--that is, to win one major war, hold off the enemy in a second conflict and then, finally, to defeat the second enemy.

But the win-hold-win phrase scared South Korean officials, who feared that their nation could easily be the country labeled "hold"--that is, asked to wait for days or weeks in a military stalemate while the United States fought another war.

In June, 1993, South Korean President Kim Young Sam dispatched his national security adviser to Washington to voice alarm about the Pentagon strategy. Soon afterward, the Administration dropped the win-hold-win phrase and said instead that the U.S. strategy would be to maintain a force large enough to fight two major regional wars "nearly" simultaneously--roughly within 30 days of each other.

Although current force levels may be enough to handle two crises that fall short of war, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry acknowledged this year that the Pentagon's current budget and resources are not now sufficient for two active, full-scale military conflicts at the same time. In an interview with the Navy Times, Perry said the U.S. military will not be able to meet the goal of fighting two major regional wars at once for several more years.

"The Bush Administration made all the easy cuts and some of the hard cuts" in the defense budget, Kanter said. "Then the Clinton Administration made hard cuts and now the really hard cuts. There's only so much you can get out of this turnip. . . . Today, I think we could exercise the (two-war) strategy. A year, three years from now, the gap between rhetoric and reality will grow."

Drop in U.S. Forces

The decline in U.S. troops strength since 1985 has drawn concerns on whether American forces could be stretch too thin.

Worldwide Europe East Asia/Pacific 1985 2.2 million 358,000 125,000 1990 2.0 million 291,000 119,000 1994 1.6 million 142,000 101,000

Source: Defense Department

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