The official end of the Cold War, marked by the growing incapacity and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, inevitably meant a reduction of us military expenditure. This had long been regarded as essential from a strictly economic point of view: the extraordinary prodigality of the Reagan years, with a military budget that at its peak in 1985—after adjustment for inflation—beat all post-1945 records, including those during the Korean and Vietnam wars, had been a major contributing factor to an enormous budget deficit, inflating an astronomical and ever-increasing public debt.footnote1

The return of the us to the status of debtor nation in 1985—for the first time since the First World War—was one major result of this out-and-out fuite en avant, whose apparent economic irrationality was explained by a political objective that looked more like an adventurous gamble than a rational calculation. Against all expectations, however, the bet was won: with hindsight, the expenditure of the Reagan era resembles a final sprint in the arms race, one that brought about the collapse of an exhausted competitor.

Since 1990-91, despite the recession and the Gulf War—the latter, it is true, providing a profitable way of liquidating some of the surplus or obsolescent Cold War weaponry—the Bush administration announced the objective for 1995 of a Base Force reduced by 25 per cent from the level of the late 1980s. This first downward revision was accentuated under the Clinton presidency by a further reduction of forces and expen-diture, following the Bottom-Up Review (bur) carried out in 1993 by Defense Secretary Les Aspin, aided by his deputy and future successor William Perry. The bur—conceived, as its name suggests, as a top-to-bottom revision of us military strategy and programming at the ‘unipolar moment’ that succeeded the defunct ‘bipolarity’—was based on a theoretically radical renewal of American grand strategy.footnote2

The ultimate scenario of the Cold War implied a state of preparedness enabling the us to wage simultaneously a limited regional war and twowars-in-one against the ussr (a major conventional war and a nuclear war); this would supposedly dissuade Moscow from trying to profit from us involvement in a regional war (like Korea or Vietnam), or even a bigger conflict with China. For this idea of a ‘major (world) war and a half’, the bur substituted the scenario of two simultaneous ‘major regional conflicts’ or mrcs (limited wars or ‘half-wars’ in Cold War terminology), supposedly taking account of the new element introduced by the absence of a ‘global peer competitor’ (or rival power of equivalent military weight) and at the same time dissuading any potential regional adversary from trying to take advantage of an American conflict with another, similar-sized regional enemy. The two sample adversaries named in the bur, like cut-out figures on a shooting range, were Iraq and North Korea. The American armed forces were supposed to hold themselves in readiness to fight these two states at the same time. In addition, to allow for the rapidly changing nature of international relations, the principle of a quadrennial review of military programming—corresponding, in fact, with each new presidential mandate—was adopted by Congress.

The new arrangement envisaged a Target Force for 1997 that would be smaller than the 1995 Base Force. The objective was broadly achieved with a 1997 Department of Defense (DoD) budget of $250 billion, plus the defence expenditure undertaken by other agencies—for example, the Department of Energy’s contribution to nuclear armament—amounting at present to about $10 billion. The (five-yearly) Future Years’ Defense Program covering 1998-2002 envisages keeping defence spending at this level in terms of constant value until the year 2000, after which there should be a very slight real annual increase of about 0.5 per cent until 2oo2—when it should reach $288 billion at current values.

This budgetary programming was not questioned by the Quadrennial Defense Review (qdr) announced by the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, in May 1997. The qdr continues subscribing to the bur scenario of two mrcs (renamed Major Theater Wars), while ‘placing greater emphasis on the continuing need to maintain continuous overseas presence to shape the international environment and to be better able to respond to a variety of smaller-scale contingencies and asymmetric threats’.footnote3

Otherwise the qdr is based on the modernization plan for the armed forces, Joint Vision 2010, centred on the use of new technologies whose implications have given birth to the somewhat pompous title Revolution in Military Affairs (rma).footnote4 As the administration has chosen to subject military spending to the constraints of the total reabsorption of the American budget deficit—contrary to the wishes of many Republicans in Congress, who would like a smaller reduction in military spending at the cost of social spending—the qdr envisages a major redefinition of priorities accompanied by a redirecting of military expenditure, to achieve the supreme objective of modernization.