How 'Hollow' ?

The specter of a hollowed-out military again haunts the land. The Joint Chiefs of Staff invoked it in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But the senators, many of whom usually revel in this kind of scariness, weren't in the mood. Some wondered why alarms were being raised so late in the budget game. Despite their pique, however, the senators were listening.

Earlier, the White House had listened. President Clinton already has agreed to boost current Pentagon spending by at least several billion, and to make a larger increase in the budget for fiscal year 2000. For now, however, the military will have to eke by on $270 billion or so.

That surpasses the combined total of all likely enemies. If a country can spend that much and still not be "ready," why not? Readiness, the issue behind the "hollowed-out" imagery, boils down to what's needed and why. US military planners still answer those queries with strategic scenarios based on the potential need to fight two major Gulf War-style conflicts simultaneously.

A more plausible scenario, based on recent events, includes antiterrorist missions and/or a succession of peacekeeping operations, some requiring long-term commitment of troops. Equipment and unit structures need to be tailored accordingly, with less reliance on massive strategic assets like aircraft carriers.

Legislators and executive branch planners, before heaping on new dollars, should demand that spending requests reflect the likely US role in an evolving post-cold-war world.

Members of Congress, in particular, should get in step by thinking globally, not parochially. Too much current spending goes to airplanes, boats, and bases tied to weapons firms and jobs in districts of powerful lawmakers rather than the security needs of the country. The Joint Chiefs correctly emphasized that point.

The chiefs made another valid point. While today's military is a long way from the original "hollowed-out" days of the 1970s, the problems of recruiting and retaining adequate personnel are real. The all-volunteer force has been a success, but its allure has faded as opportunities in a thriving civilian economy have expanded. Military pay rates should be made more competitive.

Money for that should come mainly from paring pork-barrel items from the current budget, not from lumping huge yearly increases onto a still-hefty Pentagon budget. This approach must include another round of needed base closings. That would surely help banish the "hollowed-out" apparition.

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