The real state of US readiness
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Yet there are clear problems in military readiness. If the US were to fight two simultaneous wars, for example, the forces would be slow building up in the second theater, leading to higher casualties, the readiness report says.Skip to next paragraph
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And all of the forces, with the exception of the Marines, are struggling to fill their ranks. Although the Army, Navy, and Air Force will meet their recruiting goals this year, the reserves will be undermanned, and it remains to be seen if the Pentagon can maintain high numbers while the private-sector economy holds so much allure.
Meanwhile, as a result of a historically high number of foreign operations - there are 30,000 Army troops deployed at any given moment - not all units are getting optimal training.
Equipment, too, is a concern. Systems procured before and during the Reagan era are aging, leading to skyrocketing maintenance costs. In the past three years, the Air Force spent $2 billion on unexpected spare parts, says a senior Pentagon official.
Far greater will be the cost of replacing those systems.
Peter Huessy, a senior associate at the National Defense University Foundation, says the next administration faces a "wall of water" - a crush of procurement expenses that could exceed budget forecasts by $20 billion or more annually. "If you look at the trend - and if it continues for eight years - we'll be in terrible shape," he says.
Beneath the debate on readiness is an even wider disagreement about the direction the US military should take in the next decade.
The US defense budget is larger than those of the next 10 biggest spenders combined, including Russia and China. And most US rivals are in decline. Critics question whether the US should hold to its stated goal of being able to win simultaneous conventional-type wars.
Smaller, agile units
In today's climate, it would appear that the US is more likely to encounter myriad low-scale threats, not two enemies similar to Iraq during the Gulf War. Thus, the US would need to deploy forces quickly, and have smaller, more-mobile units - an approach favored by the Army commander, Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Also, a static two-war strategy and a static readiness system do not take into account the changing global landscape.
Most recently, for example, relations between North and South Korea began to thaw, lessening the likelihood that the US would be drawn into a conflict there.
Jack Shanahan, a retired Navy admiral, says US deployments overseas are often "make-work projects" that would be better handled by regional allies. Examples include the Air Force squadrons now deployed in three-month shifts to patrol the "no fly" zone over Iraq and the 100,000 US troops stationed in Europe.
"The question is, 'What do we want our military to be able to do today?' and that has not been answered [by the politicians]," he says.
Although the differences between Democrats and Republicans on military issues may seem vast, they are not as wide as they were during the cold war.
Still, it was hardly a surprise when Bush brought the topic to the political debate. Republicans have traditionally been perceived as stronger on the defense issue. And Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, has made military issues his centerpiece.
Yet it remains unclear if the Republicans can translate tough military talk into votes. Analysts say plugging defense could be a losing strategy in a time of peace. A June 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press ranked military issues as a "very low" priority among the public.
Dick Bennett, a political pollster, says Mr. Cheney may have an advantage over Gore or his running mate Joseph Lieberman when it comes to talking defense. "But so what?" he adds. "People are more interested in education and welfare."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society