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The real state of US readiness

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2000


They're both right. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, says the US military is in a state of decline, hobbled by low morale, dated equipment, and misdirected leadership.

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Al Gore, the Democratic hopeful, counters that America's armed forces are the strongest in the world - proven in battle, smarter than ever before, light years ahead of crumbling rivals.

Those conflicting views about military readiness - and the Clinton administration's defense legacy - have become the center of a national debate as both candidates intensify their charges toward Nov. 7.

So how can both be correct?

For starters, Bush and Gore are sifting through the facts and clinging to those that best support their official positions. But beyond campaign rhetoric, the debate underscores a lingering disagreement in the United States about the role of the military - and whether it needs to be dramatically downsized, in function and funding.

Although today's climate is nothing like the 1980s, when defense was a core issue for elections, Americans still have strong feelings about a part of society that is both essential and financially draining. The topic tugs both ways.

Take Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander during its 78-day air war over Yugoslavia. When asked about the performance of US soldiers in action - the ultimate test of any military - the general speaks proudly.

Morale? "Great," he says. Readiness? "No problem."

US pilots flew 37,000 sorties and lost only two aircraft. No American soldier was killed by enemy fire.

Yet General Clark, now retired, can see greater challenges in the future, and weaknesses in the US armor. The US needs to be able to strike faster, he says, and not struggle with lack of manpower or integration problems among the different services.

"I'm concerned that we've come a long way from the cold war, yet most of the armed forces are still cold-war-based," Clark says. "Inevitably, it will need to be developed to the next level."

Define 'ready'

Objectively measuring military readiness is next to impossible, because there is no agreed-upon model, and because the Pentagon is reluctant to release detailed information. "It's difficult to argue with the guys who own the statistics," says Joseph Collins, a retired Pentagon official who is a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Pentagon assessment system gives more weight to current readiness - and takes for granted issues of continuity and long-term planning. In other words, a president can stack the numbers in his favor now, and leave his successor to clean up any mess later - just as President Clinton is accused of doing.

"There's a natural contradiction between long-term and near-term readiness," says Elizabeth Heeter, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment here. "Clinton has focused on the day to day."

She says Clinton will spend about two-thirds of this year's $300 billion defense budget on immediate needs: personnel (including a 3.7 percent pay raise), operation costs, and maintenance. The final third of the defense budget - a figure critics say is too small - will go to long-term investments, such as research, development, and procurement. Although Clinton will not make a final decision on deploying a national missile defense shield, the Pentagon will continue to work on improving the technology.

In its most recent quarterly readiness report to Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff give themselves fairly high marks. The report says "most major combat and key support forces are ready" for two simultaneous wars, the Defense Department's current goal. The Pentagon boasts of rising recruiting and retention numbers and improvements in equipment readiness.

"The force may be marginally smaller than it was 10 years ago, but it's a more capable group," says a senior Pentagon official.