People, not machines, key to US Navy's battle fitness
When the US rescue mission in Iran failed because three helicopters broke down, questions were raised with new urgency about the readiness of America's armed forces.Skip to next paragraph
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Military men avoided pointing a finger of blame at anyone for the Iran mission failure. Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, Chief of Naval Operations, told a meeting of naval engineer that the helicopter pilots on the rescue mission "were adamant in their praise for the maintenance crews." The admiral acclaimed the whole rescue team as "professionals."
But the Navy's most urgent and growing problem today is: Can it keep such top-flight professionals in its ranks? Can the Navy meet the soviet challenge at sea without major changes, including much higher pay for its best people?
Many servicemen, including technicians and pilots, can earn far more than their government salaries just by moving to civilian jobs. Many are making the switch.
At the same time, the US Navy has been forced to get by with fewer and fewer ships and planes even as the Soviet Navy is expanding. Some military experts warn that America's vital sea forces have been badly neglected.
The outlook isn't all gloomy. Recruiting of new sailors and marines has recently improved. And US ships and planes probably are better-maintained today than they have been in years, despite the breakdown of those three rescue choppers.
Admiral Hayward tells the Monitor that his service's overall readiness has "steadily improved" since the end of the Vietnam war. Ships have been overhauled, aircraft have been reworked, more money has gone into spare parts. The US has seen the "gradual, successful improvement of the total fleet," he says.
Navy recruiting currently is doing so well, especially on the West Coast and in the Midwest, that the commanding officer of the San Diego recruiting district suggests: "We may have to reduce some of our goals -- nationwide."
The Navy is virtually fully manned -- in terms of numbers, although not in skill s -- with about 524,000 men and 25,000 women; the Marines are, too, with 184,000 men and 5,085 women.
The problem, Navy men agree, is not mechanical. It is people -- people who cannot earn enough in the Navy to live decently and who can instantly double or triple their earnings if they leave.
The long Indian Ocean deployment that began about the time of the Iranian hostage crisis has accentuated the difficulties. It has stretched the fleet severely. Navy ship and air crews are spending much longer than normal periods without shore leave.
Back on shore, home-front money and morale problems affect the Navy and Marines as well as the other services. Benjamin F. Schemmer, editor of the Armed Forces Journal, estimated in March that 60,000 service people needed food stamps. Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the US Marine Corps, last March 5 notified all active and reserve marines that eligible families could obtain food stamps.
Admiral Hayward and Navy Secretary Edward Hidalgo have said a 19.8 percent pay raise, a variable housing allowance, and increased travel reimbursement would be a start toward stemming the departure of pilots, air crewmen, and many middlegrade enlisted specialists for better-paying civilian jobs.
Talking with sailors in Norfolk last March, this reporter was given a preview of how this home-front problem can affect fleet readiness. Said one petty officer: "I'd like to get married before my next sea duty. But no self-respecting local girl would want to marry anyone with my pay, and I wouldn't want to marry any other girl that would. You'll see, when the next ships sail for the Indian Ocean, there'll be a few people who aren't aboard.