Is help on the way?

Posted: Feb 20, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the years leading up to World War II, Winston Churchill, who was out of office and stripped of power, was practically alone in trying to warn his countrymen and the west of the growing threat posed by Adolf Hitler's Germany and Tojo's Japan. He was one of the few who recognized them to be the threat they turned out to be -- and who counseled for building up defenses against them. Then, like now, no one wanted to listen -- and when war finally came, England, the United States and the rest of Europe were all woefully unprepared. Now, more than six decades later, we seem destined to repeat those same mistakes. During his campaign, George W. Bush promised the young men and women of our armed forces that "Help is on the way." This week, he began fulfilling that commitment. In a series of high-profile visits to military bases, the new commander in chief pledged an additional $5.7 billion in new defense spending -- the bulk of which will go to "quality of life" improvements for those who serve. He also directed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to conduct a detailed review of all current commitments and a thorough analysis of our defense needs before submitting supplemental budget requests for new equipment and weapons systems. Few debate the need for immediate military personnel repairs. The eight years of the Clinton-Gore regime were harsh on the men and women of our armed forces, who have seen their pay raises cut and killed, their benefits diminished, and their weapons and equipment worn out -- all while being deployed to exhaustion. They have been treated like lab rats in radical social experiments and dispatched like a global "Meals on Wheels" program. Congress and the American people will enthusiastically embrace an immediate infusion of cash for better pay, housing, schools and medical support. But beyond that, the new administration will face a battle royal for the rest of its defense program. Within four hours of President Bush's remarks to the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, defeated vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman criticized the president's plans as inconsistent with the tax cuts the administration is seeking. Lieberman's critique was the first shot across the bow of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team. Before Congress and the public support massive new defense expenditures, they will have to be told who the enemy is. Therein lies the problem. Current National Military Strategy mandates forces sufficient to fight two Major Regional Contingencies (MRC's) simultaneously as well as a Lesser Regional Contingency (LRC). The force structure required to execute this strategy was based on Cold War realities. To contend with an expansionist Soviet Union and its worldwide web of proxies, we needed large mechanized units, massive numbers of tanks, aircraft, and forward deployed carriers and amphibious forces. But thanks to Ronald Reagan, "the evil empire" has vanished. That begs the question: Against what are we now defending? On the low end of the "threat spectrum," terrorism -- its practitioners like Osama bin Ladin and state sponsors of terrorist acts -- will continue to pose a serious threat to the safety of the American people. Moving up the scale of risk, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict could result in broader hostilities. The narco-guerillas who have destabilized Colombia and threaten Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil are a growing problem. "Rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea (re-named "states of concern" by our dancing diva of diplomacy, Maddy Albright) make us vulnerable -- particularly as they develop and deploy a growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Russia's inventory of 6,000 nuclear warheads on 2,300 missiles still poses a significant threat to the United States and our allies. But none of these present or potential adversaries currently pose the kind of threat that mandates maintenance of our current force structure, much less a multi-billion dollar investment in new spending for conventional forces. If we want to acknowledge reality, there is a serious potential adversary against which we should be girding ourselves. It's a regime that maintains the world's largest standing army, with 2.5 million troops under arms. It has a navy with 260,000 sailors, 60 conventional subs, 6 nuclear submarines and a surface fleet of 40 frigates and 20 destroyers, all of which carry anti-ship cruise missiles. To project power, they have 50 amphibious landing ships -- and a massive shipbuilding program. Its air force has 5,300 combat aircraft, 650 transport aircraft and more than 400,000 personnel. With the aid of purchased and stolen U.S. technology, the despots who rule this nation have built 18 silos for CSS-4 ICBMs capable of hitting the continental United States -- and more are being constructed. The last president called this potent power a "strategic partner." It's not. To deter war, or as Ronald Reagan put it, ensure "peace through strength," we must forge a defense sufficient to discourage military adventures by those who could do us harm. And that means the leadership in Washington has to stand up and state the obvious: The most serious threat to our national security isn't some Third World, tin-horn dictatorship. It's communist China.