Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, abandoned his long-held view that U.S. forces could not safely be reduced below 1.6 million troops and acknowledged Tuesday that new world developments have made further reductions possible.
The step is a striking one for Powell, who was a key architect of the George Bush Administration’s so-called “base-force” concept, which set the 1.6 million-troop figure as the “rock-bottom minimum” for U.S. military forces.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Powell responded to criticisms that the Clinton Administration is cutting the defense budget too rapidly and too deeply, saying that there has been “a passing of the baton” from the base-force concept to the “bottom-up review” of the Clinton Administration.
The bottom-up review with which Powell has now associated himself is the sweeping assessment of defense needs initiated by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. In principle, such a review would let U.S. military commitments dictate the size and scope of the armed services. Aspin has said that Powell’s base-force number approached defense from the opposite direction, beginning with existing force levels and letting factors like morale and political considerations determine how deeply troop levels could be cut.
Powell’s comments appeared intended to quell reports that he has been at odds with President Clinton on a number of defense issues, ranging from analysis of military needs to treatment of military service members.
It came a day after Aspin sent Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff back to the drawing board to further reduce the duplication of duties within the armed services. While Powell had recommended a series of very limited steps toward that end, Aspin has insisted on more.
Powell acknowledged that “some anxiety in the force with the draw-downs” may have roiled Clinton’s early relationship with the troops. But he added that GIs “want to see more of their commander in chief, and the President has expressed his interest and concern in their welfare.”
Tuesday’s hearing marked the first time that Powell has appeared with Aspin in formal congressional testimony. Just over a year ago, Powell called Aspin’s proposals to reduce the nation’s armed forces “fundamentally flawed in a number of ways” and warned that Aspin’s plan would result in military capabilities and forces that are “unbalanced.”
On Tuesday, however, Powell called Aspin’s plan to cut $12 billion from Bush’s recommended 1994 defense budget “prudent,” although he withheld his judgment on further defense cuts.
“We’ll have to do the bottom-up review . . . and then make a judgment as to whether the out-year cuts are prudent, manageable, and can we accept whatever risk is associated with them,” said Powell.
Aspin’s bottom-up review has been presented as a study that would assess the nation’s defense needs independent of political considerations and campaign promises. But President Clinton has vowed to cut U.S. forces by 200,000 beyond the 1.6-million-member force that Bush had planned and to reduce defense budgets by $88 billion beyond Bush’s blueprint.