On a cold and wintry day, three tall metal towers stand mute sentry over Ft. Benning, Ga., the U.S. Army Infantry training center. Looking almost like high-tension wire support towers, they are differentiated by the absence of wires, the presence of horizontally alternating orange and white stripes, and four horizontal metal arms emerging from the top at 90-degree angles to one another.
On fairer days, Airborne School students dangling from open parachutes are hoisted by these arms to a height of 250 feet and released--with hopes that their training will cause them to land smoothly (that occasionally happens) and safely (the normal ending).
The school's quiet apparatus raises a question: In the post-Cold War world, do we need a school that trains students for mass airborne assault tactics--the kind that in World War II darkened the sky with thousands of parachutists dropped in staccato succession? Perhaps even more important, are America's armed forces correct in preparing to fight that same type of high-intensity conventional war?
Martin van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is one of the most credible critics of U.S. military policy. While not questioning American competence in conventional warfare, Mr. van Creveld asserts that the war the United States is most prepared to fight is not the war it will see.
He notes that of more than 160 conflicts since World War II, over three quarters have been of the variety labeled "low-intensity conflict" by the armed forces--conflicts fought by guerrillas, rebels, terrorists, and insurgents. These wars have claimed more lives (over 20 million) than conventional wars, have accounted for virtually all transfers of territory among belligerents, and have proven almost invariably successful against major powers like the United States and European nations.
Currently, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's 1996 report, 30 major conflicts are raging around the world--none of which are conventional, state-on-state in nature. All are international low-intensity conflicts, though some involve outside participation.
In the United States, this new reality in warfare is represented by the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, commercial airliner bombings, and the increase of organized crime. Against these, our traditional army tactics are of little use. Indeed, in America these acts are not typically dealt with by the armed forces, but by law enforcement authorities.
Mr. van Creveld believes the most serious threat to the United States would be an event such as a civil war in Mexico. If refugees were to pour over the border in large numbers, they could cause political gridlock here and increase violence and crime. Against such a development, he says, the United States is almost totally unprepared. A Department of the Army spokesman confirmed that Army wargames do not prepare for this contingency.
Overseas, where most U.S. armed forces actions take place, guerrillas, terrorists, drug cartels, and Mafiosi define the new reality. Against these, too, America's conventional military strategy and tactics have had limited effectiveness. The U.S. military's experience in Vietnam, the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, the humiliation by Mohammed Aidid's forces in Somalia in 1993, and the recent barracks bombing in Saudi Arabia are grim reminders of this fact.
It's not that Americans don't know how to train for low-intensity conflict. At the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., exercises incorporate vigorous training against guerrilla forces both in the country and in mock cities.
The army also has improved its technology for defeating irregular forces. A new "Land Warrior" system is particularly promising. It includes a thermal sight for an infantryman's rifle that allows him to see and fire at enemy soldiers in the dark. A digital camera mounted on the rifle can transmit its images back to headquarters. Hard plastic vests for soldiers contain body armor, a powerful mini-computer, one or two radios, and a global positioning system.
The "Land Warrior" system allows images from the thermal sight or digital camera, or a map of surrounding terrain from the computer, to be reflected in a small optical device suspended from the soldier's helmet in front of one eye. On his map the soldier can see his own position, the positions of his squad mates, and suspected enemy locations. Using the thermal sight or digital camera images, he can fire accurately around corners or over the edge of a foxhole without ever exposing himself to enemy fire.
If the U.S. military can't prevail against guerrilla forces, it won't be due to a lack of training or technology. Even in Vietnam, American forces usually prevailed over their enemies in situations where they were unencumbered by counterproductive policies.
The problem facing the military is that neither it nor its supporting citizenry can endure long-lasting, low-intensity conflict--and yet those twilight struggles against guerrillas or terrorists are the most likely to occur.
Mr. Kroening, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, is a writer in Murrayville, Ga.