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MILITARY : Pentagon’s ‘Bottom-Up Review’ Appears to Be Down and Out : A year after defense chief Aspin praised his post-Cold War redesign, it has become a liability. Now some critics are asking for a review of the review.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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. “It . . . is based upon the real dangers that face America in the new era.”

But today, the bottom-up review has become a liability, derided by outside defense experts of all stripes and given only a lukewarm embrace by the Department of Defense’s new management.

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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 J. Perry, who moved up from deputy secretary after Aspin resigned in December, conceded recently that the military would not be able to meet the goal of fighting two major regional wars at once 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.

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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 that the Administration is clearly “torn” over the bottom-up review. “They recognize they don’t have the resources to support it, but they have no alternative. 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 bottom-up 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.

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As a result, such outside critics as Andrew F. 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 officials insisted that Perry still fully supports the review’s conclusions, insiders say John M. 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 on Monday, officials warned that budget pressures could well force the Administration to cancel some of the military’s most pressing big-ticket future weapon programs, including the F-22 jet fighter and the Army’s Commanche helicopter.

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

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By far the most serious criticism of the bottom-up 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 when he proposed it two years ago.

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

Analyst David Isenberg of the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization, contended that the review’s scenario of two major regional wars is a throwback to the Cold War, when the Pentagon was concerned about fighting 2 1/2 full-scale wars in Europe and Asia.

And many analysts, such as Systems Planning Corp.'s Zakheim, questioned Aspin’s use of the 1991 Persian Gulf War as the standard for figuring future U.S. military requirements. The situation that U.S. troops faced there is likely to prove unique, Zakheim said.

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Instead, he warned, the United States is far more likely to encounter a series of simultaneous low-level conflicts such as today’s in Haiti and Rwanda. The force structure required for those is likely to be “entirely different,” he said.

Conservatives warned that even if the two-war scenario is valid, Clinton’s current defense budget falls far short of what is needed to finance the force structure demanded by the review and will stretch existing troops and equipment paper-thin.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former fighter pilot, predicted that the Aspin plan risks a return to the “hollow forces” of the 1970s, when the military was so depleted that it would have been unable to mount a serious offensive.

The Army already is having to cut modernization and some maintenance and training activities. And the operating tempo of some units--the amount of time that they actually spend on operations, as opposed to being down for maintenance or replenishment--is down.

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On procedural grounds, the authors of the bottom-up review are criticized for crafting it to fit within the budget limits that Clinton already had set, rather than setting military policy first and then shaping the budget to reflect it.

“There’s no question that the budget is what was driving this,” said Don M. Snider, director of political-military affairs for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a middle-of-the-road Washington think-tank.

Despite Perry’s continued support of the review in public, many senior military officers are highly critical of the document. The Army, the service that was hardest-hit by the cuts, has launched a full-scale attack in Congress, quietly urging members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to oppose the reductions in spending on force modernization.

There is no real consensus on what ultimately will happen to the bottom-up review. Some insiders predict that it may be allowed to fade away after Congress passes the fiscal 1996 budget about a year from now.

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But for now, Clinton appears to be stuck with the bottom-up review, for appearances’ sake if nothing else.

Analysts said that the Administration would look even more awkward if it abandons the document so soon after its unveiling. And Pentagon-watchers said that the White House now needs the review to help defend its military programs from would-be budget-cutters in Congress.

Clinton warned lawmakers in January that he planned to hold the line on the defense reductions that he had proposed. To do so, Administration lobbyists have been warning that any further cuts would jeopardize the goals set in the bottom-up review.

“For the moment,” Zakheim said, “there’s nothing to replace it.”

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