The Blog


11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Yes, it can, for conditions today are totally different from those that prevailed in 1989. We deterred the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons -- our own, at home and in Europe, and those of the British and French, as well. Nuclear weapons are expensive individually, but very cost-effective by comparison with conventional forces. During the Cold War, we maintained an Army of 18 divisions -- 8 more than today -- but it was never intended to defeat the Red Army by itself. In addition to the forces of our NATO allies, which were far larger then they are now, plans for a war with the Soviet Union anticipated the call-up of all reserves and National Guard forces and probably a full national mobilization -- after all, it would have been the Third World War. The Army was just the vanguard of the mobilized nation.

That situation no longer holds. For most contingencies we can imagine today, there will be no national mobilization and probably only a selective call-up of reserve and guard forces. The active-duty Army is not a vanguard anymore. Together with certain ready-reserve and guard units, it's all we have. There is no easy way to compare the cost of maintaining a vanguard force, tailored to a particular mission in a known area against a thoroughly studied enemy, with the cost of maintaining a force ready to go anywhere in the world at a moment's notice with no warning and little foreknowledge of who, why, and how it might be fighting.

The Air Force and the Navy face similar difficulties. Although they were more than vanguard forces during the Cold War, they too had the advantage of knowing who their enemy was, what he would try to do, and exactly how we planned to stop him. They also knew that, were they stationed off Soviet ports or called upon to bomb Soviet rear bases over an extended period, the nation would be mobilizing behind them and resources, reinforcements, and replacements would be provided to sustain the effort.

Today's task of maintaining carrier battle groups or fighter wings permanently ready in any one of several high-risk regions for an indefinite time without the benefit of a national mobilization is a totally different kind of challenge. The peace dividend has always been a myth, and a dangerous one: It is impossible to know in advance how much or little the armed forces' new mission will cost except by experience evaluated honestly. So far, experience shows that it costs more than we are currently planning to pay.

Finally, in 1989, we were not proposing, as we are now, to transform the armed forces in keeping with the new high-tech revolution in military affairs. If, within the next decade or so, plans are not well along to replace all of the major weapons systems of all of the services with entirely new systems appropriate to the new nature of war, America's danger will be very great indeed. Smart munitions in the hands of our foes will prevent us from even landing forces on, flying planes over, or sailing ships near the theaters where we need to intervene. Warfare may well move too rapidly for us to take several days to put forces on the ground and several months to build up an offensive capability, as we did in the Gulf. We may be unable to defend our allies and pursue our interests. Unless a missile-defense system is deployed in short order, moreover, we may find the United States itself under direct attack. This is not scaremongering. This is reality, and if we do not face it soon, more squarely than anyone seems to be doing today, we place our security and the security of our children in peril.

Frederick W. Kagan is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Army, or the Defense Department.