To borrow from the breath mint commercial: "The Next War" is five, five, FIVE techno-thrillers in one!
Caspar Weinberger, who oversaw the Reagan defense buildup that precipitated the end of the Cold War, now uses fiction as the method to warn of the consequences of cutting the military.
Though think-tank types may be disappointed at the approach, military buffs with less pointy heads will certainly applaud.
Weinberger and co-author Peter Schweizer construct five future war scenarios and project America's future ability - or inability - to deal with them based on current defense budget projections and priorities.
Each scenario involves a basis of several realities:
The force that won Desert Storm no longer exists, and America's ability to project overwhelming force quickly and without vulnerability elsewhere is gone.
Nuclear proliferation on some scale is inevitable, particularly with smaller rogue states.
The United States has no protection against even limited nuclear attack.
The Clinton administration has made certain that, in 12 years, the American nuclear force will be unmaintainable.
Intelligence agents have been replaced by satellites in many hot spots around the world, making it possible to track what happens but not to predict it.
In the first scenario, Red China in 1998 decides to take advantage of an invasion of South Korea by the North to threaten Taiwan. American forces are not only stretched thin, but they also take a terrible pounding by the North Koreans, whose erratic dictator is not above using nuclear weapons.
In the second, it is 1999, and the Iranians have developed an Islamic Bomb. Thanks to renegade Russian scientists, the Iranians have the means to deliver the goods.
The West's inability to stop even one ballistic missile means U.S. forces are blackmailed into leaving the Persian Gulf. It will take a desperate gamble to remove the threat and keep Iran from controlling most of the world's oil.
In 2003, a government openly hostile to the United States takes power in Mexico, and a border crisis erupts. Thanks to intelligence cutbacks, the military is caught unprepared for the need for massive manpower on the border.
The fourth scenario involves a militant nationalist who takes control of a Russia in economic shambles in 2006 and decides that giving up Eastern Europe was his country's big mistake.
In the last, a Japanese prime minister presiding over an economy that has been stagnant for decades tries to succeed where Tojo failed and create a Greater Pacific Co-Prosperity Sphere by force of arms.
In most cases, "The Next War" succeeds surprisingly well. Weinberger and Schweizer create a startling amount of tension in what looks to be merely a series of Cliff Notes of Tom Clancy books.
The Iranian, Russian and Korean scenarios are the most gripping because they seem like logical extensions of today's headlines, though the Mexican one is probably the most imaginative.
The book does have its weaknesses, however. The Japanese war, for example, is too much a replay of World War II. Since Japan is the one democracy posed as an enemy, its domestic politics should have been covered.
The Russian war is a knockout chapter - probably because in Weinberger's day, that was the one they spent the most time studying - but it is frustrating that this one is cut abruptly short without being able to fully unfold.
The impressive pedigree of "The Next War" - it features an introduction by no less than Margaret Thatcher - makes one take it more seriously than the dozens of techno-thrillers that crowd the market every year.
Weinberger's credentials may make you pick up "The Next War," but this book earns its stripes the old-fashioned way - on the battlefield.