US military might low on muscle

Cruise missiles on back order, as supplies dwindle due to action inIraq, Yugoslavia.

Americans watch as cruise missiles launched from US Navy ships in the Adriatic blow up oil refineries in Belgrade, hundreds of miles away. Stealth bombers, guided by a stellar network of spy and navigational satellites, strike centers of strategic bridges, cutting off Yugoslav troops' resupply lines.

The technological superiority of the US arsenal in the world is unquestioned.

But as the NATO campaign aimed at ending the conflict in Kosovo enters its third week, the Pentagon is being stretched by its deployment of staff and materiel.

The US is still flying hundreds of sorties over the no-fly zones in Iraq. Moreover, the US maintains a 9,800-strong peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

America's arsenal

It's not so much that the US doesn't have the guns, ammo, and aircraft it needs to participate in two conflicts simultaneously.

Plenty of ordnance, such as laser-guided bombs and "dumb" bombs, is in the arsenal. But the most-effective weapons - cruise missiles and smart-bomb kits - are on back order. Moreover, warplanes and naval ships have been diverted from other operations to join the war in Yugoslavia.

"[The US military] is definitely being stretched thin. It's putting pressure on planners to determine where they are going to put their aircraft," says a Pentagon source. "[Kosovo] has created a mess the Pentagon is not prepared for in terms of aircraft availability."

Half a dozen of the Navy's EA-6B Prowlers, for example, have been removed from Iraqi operations to fly missions in Serbia.

At sea, the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt has been diverted from the Persian Gulf to join the dozen US ships and submarines in the Adriatic. The USS Kitty Hawk group in Japan has been sent to the Persian Gulf to cover. But that leaves a gap in Pacific coverage.

"There are two classes of problems here," says Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Does this [conflict in Kosovo] stretch us thin?

"If China or North Korea acts up," Mr. Vickers says, "we might need carriers there. The other problem is, given the enemy and the terrain, a lot of things we have aren't working well right now."

At the top of the "not working well" list are laser-guided munitions. Pilots must eyeball their targets, then use a laser beam to guide the bombs to those targets. But with the extended cloud cover and smoke, pilots' vision has been limited.

While there are plenty of laser-guided munitions at the ready, other precision-guided bombs effective in all-weather conditions - particularly cruise missiles - are running low.

These cruise missiles, which can be launched from the sea and air, are guided by Global Positioning System satellites. Now, fewer than 100 of the conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs) are available.

American B-52s flying out of England are capable of loading 20 CALCMs in their bomb bays. But they're limited to a maximum of eight to conserve the stockpile.

"It's like a policeman carrying a 9-mm with his clip only half full," says military affairs reporter Greg Seigle of Jane's Defence Weekly. "There are plenty of other weapons that can be used, but the CALCMs have been the weapon of choice since they can be fired from 1,200 miles away."

Weapons of choice

The Air Force fired 90 cruise missiles at Iraq last December, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein forced out United Nations weapons inspectors. At the same time, the US Navy launched 330 Tomahawk missiles.

In the Kosovo conflict, more than 100 air- and sea-launched missiles were targeted at the Serbian military and infrastructure in the first week alone.

The Pentagon insists its planners are adapting and handling the allocation of specialized aircraft without harming overall effectiveness. And, they say, the shortages within certain classes of cruise missiles are having no negative operational impact.

"We've seen no impact on operations," says Capt. Stephen Pietropaoli, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman. "The effect on [Serbian] infrastructure has been acute."

Back orders

The Pentagon has asked Congress for $51 million to convert 92 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles into conventional ones. And it is ordering more cruise missiles. But delivery of new missiles will take months. Once the manufacturer is given the go-ahead, it may take a year to set up a production line that will turn out approximately 12 missiles per month.

And retrofit kits that can be strapped onto a standard dumb bomb, providing it satellite guidance capability, are running low. Nearly 3,000 of the kits have been ordered, but they are just now being produced.

As the Pentagon works the logistics on the field, its bean counters have another battle to fight closer to home.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates the cost for the first nine days of war at $500 million. Because money for fighting is not included in the Pentagon's budget, it will have to ask for more funds.

"In the current budget environment, that could be contentious," says Stephen Daggett, a national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

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