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Inspecting military: '80s forces rank high

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 1985


In the fortunes of the M-16 automatic rifle can be seen the post-World War II fall and rise of the whole US military. A light weapon made of special plastics and alloys, the M-16 was one of the United States Army's many great problems in the Vietnam war. Reliable in prototype, it had been made too fast-firing by military modifications, and it often fouled and jammed during combat.

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Today, the M-16 is much improved -- but perhaps still not as good as it should be. The modern version of the rifle wins NATO small-arms reliability trials, but critics complain it is inferior to its Soviet counterpart, the AK-47.

As goes the basic weapon, so goes the US military force.

Like the M-16, the US armed services have been rejuvenated over the past decade. They have better people, a new generation of equipment, and new tactics for the conflicts that strategists say are likely to erupt in today's world.

At the same time, they are troubled by interservice rivalry, expensive weapons that break, and doubts about their war-fighting capability.

``We've gained back what we lost in Vietnam,'' says retired Army Lt. Col. Theodore Crackel, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. ``But we've not gone beyond that to crack through to a whole new way of thinking about the military profession.''

It almost goes without saying that Vietnam was a great trauma for the US military -- and particularly for the Army, which took the brunt of the fighting.

As the war dragged through its decade's course, US arsenals in Western Europe were drawn down to provide materiel for the forces fighting in Southeast Asia. The cohesion of the Army was ripped apart in many units, as the pressure of fighting a controversial war led to high rates of drug use, racial strife, and plummeting morale.

The Army's senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) -- the tough sergeants who transform recruits into soldiers and anchor solid fighting units -- were almost wiped out in Vietnam. They were replaced by men with a bare eight weeks of training. ``We called 'em shake-'n-bake NCOs,'' recalls Gen. Eugene Meyer, a former Army chief of staff.

Ten years later the Army has finally rebuilt its NCO corps with sergeants who in many ways are more qualified than their predecessors of the early '60s, General Meyer says.

This reflects what a wide range of officers and outside experts rank as the most important change in the military since Vietnam: the higher quality of its personnel.

In 1975, two years after the end of the draft, only 66 percent of first-time enlistees in the US military had graduated from high school. In 1984, by comparison, 93 percent of enlistees had high school diplomas. And the experience level of US forces is increasing, as more of these recruits choose to reenlist.

There are shortages: The Navy doesn't have enough submarine officers, for instance, and the Air Force has a hard time keeping experienced pilots. The services will undoubtedly find recruitment harder in coming years, as the total number of US teen-agers shrinks. But for now, ``it's the best overall personnel status since I've been in the military,'' says retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.