Clinton defies military over defence rethink: Change in strategy will limit US war capability to one region

IN THE FACE of considerable resistance from US service chiefs, the Clinton administration is moving towards a new military strategy that would hasten its goal of big cuts in defence spending - but at the price of losing the country's capability to fight more than one big regional war at any given time.

The new thinking was sketched in public last week for the first time by the Defence Secretary, Les Aspin. In essence, it would replace the current post-Cold War policy of maintaining sufficient forces to fight and win two conflicts simultaneously with what is dubbed as a strategy of 'win-hold-win'.

This means that if two regional wars were to erupt simultaneously - say an Iraqi attack against a US ally in the Middle East, and a North Korean assault on the South - Washington would concentrate its resources on a quick victory in one, while using air power and sophisticated weaponry to hold the line in the other. As soon as the first was won, forces would be switched to the other conflict.

In terms of pure firepower, the emerging strategy implies a further big shrinkage of the military. The current two-war capability is based on forces of 12 aircraft-carriers, 12 army divisions and 24 tactical air force wings. Under 'win-hold-win' the strengths would fall to 10 carriers, 10 divisions and 20 wings.

A third option - a mix of only one regional war and some modest peace-keeping capacity - has apparently already been discarded. It would permit just eight carriers, eight divisions, and 16 wings, but would expose the administration and Democrats to accusations of recklessly weakening US security at a time of acute regional instability in several parts of the world.

But even the intermediate version is under sharp attack from the military brass. The Navy's most senior officer, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank Kelso, publicly complained last weekend that a cut to 10 carriers would either require intolerably long tours of duty, or a cutback in US naval presence at global hotspots: 'It's a question of risk,' he warned, 'it's not what you planned to do, it's what takes place.' Anonymously, other top commanders have scornfully rechristened the new strategy 'win-lose-lose'.

More fundamentally, 'win- hold-win' is bound to raise fresh questions over American military credibility and its capacity to provide the leadership expected from the lone remaining superpower. For Mr Clinton, the unappetising prospect looms of a further set-to with service chiefs. Controversy continues over his plan to lift the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces, while the generals will be bitterly disappointed if, in the next few days, he fails to permit resumption of US nuclear tests.

Mr Aspin, under pressure to deliver on administration plans to cut today's Pentagon budget of dollars 263bn ( pounds 176bn) by 21 per cent in real terms over the next five years, counters with the argument that advanced air power, surveillance technology and new 'stand-off' weaponry against an armoured attack will enable the US to keep an enemy at bay with a relatively modest actual deployment of manpower.

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