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War Games Target Tomorrow's Enemy

Military: Decision to fight a guerrilla army rather than a superpower underscores current national defense debate.


FT. POLK, La. — The Army came here Saturday to kill its own. Pitting unit against unit, war games raged across 200,000 acres of Louisiana bottom land constructed to mimic the real world.

There were villages with homes, restaurants, graveyards. Mortar rounds exploded overheard. Even a riotous population demonstrated against the invaders.

But unlike war games of old, when U.S. troops pretended to battle the Soviets, the approximately 5,000 troops here were fighting the fictitious Cortina Liberation Front, a well-trained guerrilla army.

The Pentagon's decision to battle a guerrilla force rather than a superpower in these war games underscores a fierce debate taking place in the presidential race concerning the nation's ability to wage war. The fundamental question is not whether the military is ready, experts say. The question is: ready for what?

"The real readiness debate is, 'Are we ready for yesterday's battles or the ones we will have to fight tomorrow?' " said Andrew F. Krepinevich, head of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The Republican presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, repeatedly charges that the Clinton administration has allowed the military to lapse since its modern fighting peak during the Persian Gulf War. Equipment is in disrepair, he claims, and troops' morale is low.

But experts say the most vital military questions for the next president go beyond pay and parts to a critical judgment about the military's future mission. And while both Bush and the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, have promised to review U.S. deployments abroad, neither has taken a stand on whether to fundamentally retool the nation's military goals.

Ability to Fight Two Major Wars

The choices are framed by the Pentagon and military traditionalists, on the one hand, who insist that the U.S. armed forces must be able to fight two major wars simultaneously, a goal that has long served as the cornerstone of American defense policy.

On the other side are some military strategists and a handful of politicians who say the military should ready itself for conflicts that will be smaller, faster and geographically diffuse. Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman has long been a leading voice in pushing for just such a force.

Few analysts outside the Pentagon believe the United States today is ready to fight two massive wars against two opponents--no matter how improbable that scenario may be.

But take the small-war goal standard--with enemies such as the Cortina Liberation Front--and the picture changes. Nearly everyone in the military community believes the U.S. is ready to fight the small conflicts it is most likely to face. But that readiness soon could deteriorate.

Experienced officers are fleeing the ranks for more rewarding private sector jobs. Ships and tanks are getting old. Soldiers are serving long, dangerous missions far from their families.

"Today's readiness is good, but tomorrow's is in jeopardy," said Michael O'Hanlon, an informal advisor to Gore and a military scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "There are some troubling signs in the next 10 years."

Further complicating the picture is money. The Pentagon's $291-billion budget for next year is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 10 largest countries, including Russia, China and Germany.

Bush has pledged to add $9 billion for military pay raises and $36 billion more over 10 years to the research and development budget. Gore has pledged a total of $100 billion over 10 years to address everything from pay to technology.

Smaller Wars Mean Smaller Budgets

Military experts point to the vast amounts of cash involved, and the politics entwined with that money, as part of the reason why it is so hard to change the nation's overarching military goals.

Smaller wars mean smaller budgets for Pentagon officials. And less money for politicians to devote to pet military projects in their districts.

"It's not a lack of resources, it's how the resources are used," said John Isaacs, head of the Council for a Livable World, which favors reduced defense spending.

The abstract debate about readiness played out in plain view of hundreds of journalists, military officials and Defense Department contractors during the war games this week in "The Box" at Ft. Polk, one of the Army's premier training centers. The experiment was one of the most technologically advanced war games ever staged.

Long after night fell Friday, C-130 aircraft carrying the 82nd Airborne Division flew low over the piney woods, dropping nearly 500 paratroopers. They drifted across the night sky toward a landing field, their parachutes appearing like ghostly jellyfish through the green glow of night-vision goggles.

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