Defense debate: Are US forces 'combat ready'?

"There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy," remarked George Washington in 1780. Two hundred years later, in the midst of a presidential election campaign, the paramount defense question before the electorate seems to be: Just how well prepared does the united States have to be to meet potential enemies -- the Soviet Union, in particular?

In the view of Defense Secretary Harold Brown, the nation's forces "are ready to go to war, if need be."

Republicans and Democrats have wrangled over SALT II, the scrapping of the B- 1 bomber, the shelving of the neutron bomb, the alleged leaking of supersecret "Stealth" technology, and the high rate of attrition of skilled members of the all-volunteer military services. But the readiness of the nation's armed forces , in the opinion of many analysts here, is the primary defense issue of the 1980 campaign.

Some maintain that this issue has lately been obscured by the "peace or war" controversy, with President Carter fueling suspicious that Ronald Reagan would be more likely than he to involve the US in conflict. It is pointed out that presidential protagonists have traditionally sought to portray themselves as peace candidates and to discredit their opponents as warmongers. Lyndon Johnson's portrayal of Barry Goldwater as a reckless militarist in 1964 is cited as a prime example.

But the readiness issue remains, and is likely to be brought up in the Oct. 28 Carter-Reagan debates.

Speaking recently in El Paso, Texas, Defense Secretary Brown denied allegations that many warships, Army divisions, and Air Force squadrons are not ready for combat. "These reports, which are based on references to the military 'C' rating system, are extremely misleading," he declared. He said the ratings "are a peacetime management device to identify problem areas" and "are not exactly applicable in a wartime setting."

To illustrate his point, the secretary observed that while a tank might not be deemed "operationally ready" if it needs maintenance, in many cases the same tank, "in the same condition, would be usable -- and would be used -- if we were suddenly at war."

The secretary's remarks have drawn fire from the Reagan camp. Observed Richard Allen, the Republican candidate's chief foreign policy adviser: "No matter how many attempts to accentuate the positive are made, cold, hard, unhappy facts remain. Six out of 10 Army divisions in the US are not combat-ready; only 6 of 13 US aircraft carriers are combat-ready, and half of the country's first-line warplanes cannot fly."

Adm. Elmo Zumwalt (USN, ret.), former chief of naval operations, claims that the defense secretary's Texas speech was filled with "inaccuracies and distortions." He maintains that Brown deliberately concealed the fact that US naval forces in the Indian Ocean were assembled only by cutting back the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific.

"I've served with seven secretaries of defense, and Harold Brown is the most political secretary of defense that we have ever had," exclaims Adm. Thomas Moorer (USN, ret.), a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He has clearly demonstrated his willingness to join the White House crowd and do anything -- and I do mean anything -- to get Jimmy Carter re-elected."

The senior military officers of the four US services have not been silent on the question of US military readiness -- to the irritation of the White House.

Earlie this month, Gen. Lew Allen, Air Force chief of staff, told a Rapid City, S.D., audience that the US has "serious deficiencies" in its armed forces. "We are entering a period of pronounced ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missiles] vulnerability, resulting from the greater momentum of Svoiet defense programs," he said.

Adm. James Watkins, vice-chief of naval operations, told Congress last month that in the past year "the number of ships reporting marginally ready for combat has doubled, and those reporting not combat-ready has quadrupled."

Recently the commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command, Gen. Richard H. Ellis, claimed he does not have the forces to support the administration's new targeting strategy.

But perhaps the most scathing criticism of Carter defense policies has come from the Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward Meyer, who has described his forces in the Us as "a hollow army," dificient in manpower, weapons, and supplies.

For many in this city of defense analysts, teh current readiness debate seems to have a curiously artificial air about it -- so rarely, they say is it discussed by politicians in terms of the nation's foreign policy and the perceived strategic ambitions of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many point out that an effective defense policy cannot be forged without a coherent foreign policy which, the Reagan camp contends, the US does not now have.

For the general public, the readiness dev bate is often incomprehensibly abstruse -- the claims and counterclaims of the contending parties often virtually impossible to disentangle.

Many defense experts here are turning to a huge new paperback entitled "US-Soviet Military Balance -- Concepts and Capabilities 1960-1980." Its author is John Collins, widely respected senior specialist in national defense for the Congressional Research Service. He finds the nuclear deterrent "shaky" and the ability of the American people and production base to survive a full-scale nuclear assault by the Soviet Union to be "mil."

Mr. Collins fells that "bolstering budgets will produce fewer defense benefits than desired unless US leaders stand back, survey the strategic forest instead of the tactical treees, challenge assumptions, subordinate special interests, stress proven principles, and press for practical change."

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