Changing Roles for Military Power : U.S. and Soviets Must Redesign Forces to Face New Challenges

1987 was a remarkable year in U.S. foreign policy, from the Iran-Contra affair to the Washington summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But most remarkable was a series of developments that will condition the purposes and potential of American military power for years to come.

Most obvious was the basic change in the way both the United States and the Soviet Union deal with nuclear weapons. In the 14 months since Reagan met with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, the agenda has changed from limiting the upward thrust of the nuclear-arms race to making sizable cuts. One treaty, on eliminating Euromissiles, has been signed. Another, to cut strategic offensive weapons by about 50%, has been agreed on in principle, although key details remain to be decided.

These technical changes to the nuclear balance have major political implications. By altering the terms of nuclear debate, Reagan has acknowledged that the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance is highly stable, that there is little risk of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war and--most striking--that some political roles played by nuclear weapons have declined. Tacitly, the superpowers have agreed to stop comparing their overall national power in terms of the size of their respective nuclear arsenals. By their actions they have also agreed to qualify radically the use of nuclear weapons in their relations with other states. After the arms cuts they will still be the big boys on the block, but wielding decidedly smaller sticks--symbolically more than substantively.

Yet the widespread perception that the superpowers' nuclear arsenals will have less political effect has created a problem in Western Europe. There, America's allies this past year became increasingly concerned that the U.S. nuclear commitment to their security will be weakened. Of course, almost no one believes that there will be a war; in practice, therefore, the point is moot. But nuclear weapons have been invested with great symbolic value, and, psychologically if not militarily, something needs to be done.

The simplest "something" is to ensure that the conventional military balance in Europe is adequate to provide extra insurance against an unlikely war. Also, with ferment in U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations, more attention is being paid to the state of the conventional balance, which--on paper at least--favors the Soviet Union and its allies.

Yet at precisely the time when the nuclear environment is changing, the United States has run out of money to increase its spending on conventional weapons and manpower. Next year will see a lower defense budget, including manpower cuts. Nor is it likely that the West European allies will take up the slack. In view of America's other economic difficulties, another intense round of discussions about burden-sharing within the alliance is about to begin. More important, the allies must either succeed in negotiating major, asymmetrical reductions in Warsaw Pact forces--a daunting if not impossible task--or learn to live with the pact's apparent superiority. No one knows what effect the latter step would have on the psychology and politics of the Western alliance.

Changes in thinking about nuclear weapons, arms reductions and pressure on the defense budget will make 1988 a critical year of decision about the structure of U.S. military forces for many years ahead. Conceptually, cutting nuclear weapons by 50% is child's play. The difficulty lies in deciding what to keep. In the next few months the military services will engage in some of their fiercest interservice bargaining in years. That bargaining will also further weaken support for the President's most cherished program, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Its future is now less rosy--partly because the new climate in U.S.-Soviet relations on offensive arms weakens the rationale for defensive arms, and partly because SDI now faces increased competition for declining defense dollars.

Last year's most important harbinger of developments in U.S. military power and policy was to be found in the Persian Gulf. Debate continues about the wisdom of reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers and protecting them with a U.S. Navy armada. But there is little doubt that what is happening in the gulf points the way to America's military future. This is a future far less consumed with efforts to bolster nuclear deterrence or to increase the U.S. capacity to project military power against the Soviet Union. The latter, for example, was a primary rationale for creating a 600-ship Navy.

Instead, beyond a continuing role for U.S. conventional forces in Europe, the future of American defense policy will be preoccupied with having the capacity to project military power to parts of the Third World--including countries on the periphery of the Soviet Union. There will also be more preoccupation with traditional American concerns like ensuring the freedom of the seas, plus newer concerns like terrorism. These requirements mean an emphasis on military forces, in each of the services, that are quite different from those developed to deal with the 1980s.

Reagan came to power proclaiming the need for more American military muscle in the face of Soviet military buildup. Ironically, he has undertaken the first act of nuclear disarmament, highlighted non-nuclear defense problems and set the economic stage for a time of relative austerity in defense. Despite the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history, it is Reagan and his successor who now face the task of redesigning U.S. military forces to face the challenges of a different world.

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