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Boys lose out to toys in US defence review

Congress yesterday heard first details of a defence review that will reduce spending, cut troop numbers and close a number of bases in the US but not abroad. The Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) is an exercise set up at President Bill Clinton's instigation to recommend strategic and spending priorities for the next 20 years.

Although it will not be published until Monday, the timing of its release to Congress, the day after Nato reached agreement with Russia on terms for the expansion of the alliance eastwards, exposed a paradox.

While the Nato deal presages big changes to the alliance, the long negotiations caused barely a ripple of open dissent in the US. The QDR, by contrast, though judged to be relatively unadventurous, has already unleashed a torrent of criticism.

From the right comes the charge that military spending and manpower, both now 30 per cent lower than at their peak in the Reagan years, have been cut so far that any further decrease in spending, manpower or hardware will jeopardise security. In fact, the new proposed cuts are seen as modest compared to those of recent years - 60,000 troops, for instance, compared to cuts of 600,000 since 1989.

From the left comes the charge that the "peace dividend"- sums supposedly saved after the Cold War - have been mislaid or squandered. From dozens of individual congressmen come objections that anticipate closure of local factories and bases.

The most sweeping criticism comes from political groupings and military insiders, who attack the QDR for its unadventurousness, asking why it did not take the opportunity to reconsider the whole thrust of US defence policy. "It's just business as usual, with some nibbling around the edges," said retired vice-admiral Jack Shanahan, of the Centre for Defence Information.

Overall, critics of the QDR do not object to manpower reductions, procurement cuts or base closures in principle. They even praise the attempt to narrow the gap between available funds and strategy goals. What they object to is the balance and above all the "vision" of the proposals as rooted in the past.

One complaint is that more manpower than hardware is destined to be cut and more active-duty troops than infrastructure staff. The argument was between "boys and toys", said Franklin Spinney, of the Pentagon, and "toys" won. Not just any "toys", he points out, but costly aircraft and submarines that may not be appropriate for the new tasks that confront the military.

These new tasks are not, defenders of the QDR say, completely neglected by the review. But, retort the critics, they are not reflected in the proposals. As set out by a number of Washington think-tanks and a small faction in the Pentagon, the tasks are identified as international and domestic terrorism, regional or ethnic wars, localised chemical or biological attacks, information "wars", access to space, and - more prosaically - peace-keeping and humanitarian operations. Most critics of the QDR concur that for at least the next two decades the US faces no major global threat, yet the review persists in the view that the US must retain the capacity to fight two major wars, simultaneously on different fronts, or in quick succession.

The critics differ about whether what is needed is less sophisticated equipment for use on a smaller scale, closer to zones of conflict, or concentration on hi-tech warfare. The common watchwords, though, are smaller, lighter, more flexible, and many fewer troops abroad: "not global presence, but global reach", as one expert put it.