THE state of readiness for combat of US military units is developing into one of the first sharp policy disputes between the Clinton White House and resurgent congressional Republicans.
On one level, the fight is about money. Many in the GOP claim the defense budget is too small to keep United States forces in good condition, despite a six-year, $25 billion readiness increase announced by President Clinton last week and his reminder yesterday on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that the US ``must never again be unprepared.''
But on another level, the argument involves different visions of what the military is for. To many Republicans, the strain caused by US military involvement in Haiti and other peacekeeping operations is a major problem. They want US forces to stay at home, honing skills to meet as-yet undeveloped larger threats to American interests.
The Clinton administration ``must stop wearing out the force by deploying it all over the world in support of operations of questionable national interest,'' says Rep. Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The infamous ``hollow military'' of the 1970s has not yet reappeared. But no one disputes that readiness shortfalls are beginning to crop up at many US bases. The Clinton administration was embarrassed last month when it admitted that three of the Army's 12 active-duty divisions were not prepared to perform all their assigned combat missions, earning them low-readiness marks.
Furthermore, Congressman Spence charges in a new report that the overall view from the field is not good, for all services:
* Some tank-platoon leaders of the Army's 24th Division were deployed to Kuwait in October despite the fact that they had never trained with their platoon in the field, because of shortfalls in training funds.
* At Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, the 20th Fighter Wing has begun to cannibalize components from operational aircraft to ensure adequate parts stocks for overseas deployments.
* In September, 28 Navy and Marine Corps aircraft squadrons had to ground more than half of their planes because they didn't have enough money to pay for flying time.
Pentagon's new allowance
Last week, in a Rose Garden announcement, the president pledged a $25-billion boost in the Pentagon budget over the next six years, largely to address readiness issues. Broken down over the next four years, this hike will provide about $2.5 billion per year for improvement in flying time, maintenance funds, and other readiness measures.
The bulk of the Clinton increase would come in 1999 and beyond. In addition, the total $25-billion package will pay not only for increased readiness but also for a troop pay raise and such quality-of-life improvements as child-care centers at military bases.
``The president has insisted that readiness is maintained at high levels as we downsize,'' said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch last week when outlining the funding increase.
By way of contrast, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona claims that the Defense Department would need a $12-billion annual hike in its budget to fix current readiness shortfalls.
House Republicans, in their ``Contract With America,'' vowed to ``strengthen defense'' beyond Clinton efforts, but attached no dollar figure to this promise. Given the tight budget environment and GOP promises to cut taxes for the middle class, a further increase in the defense budget may be difficult to achieve.
Yet unless more funds are provided, ``I fear that this readiness problem will continue to creep toward the hollow-force problem of the 1970s,'' claims Spence.
Coupled with the spat over money is a more complicated foreign-policy dispute over the use of US forces in peacekeeping endeavors.
As the Clinton team points out, much of what the Republicans call deterioration in readiness is the result of spending shortfalls and wear-and-tear caused by unanticipated deployments to Haiti, Kuwait, Somalia, and other trouble spots. The president has promised to submit a supplemental defense appropriations bill asking for an extra $2 billion in 1995 to cover costs of these contingency operations.
In the past, Congress has been less than swift to deal with similar requests. If it drags its feet again, the deputy defense secretary said, ``the same shortfalls'' will reappear.
Given the incoming Republican congressional leadership's antipathy to United Nations peacekeeping, the readiness debate thus may well give way to a larger argument about when it is proper to send the men and women of the US military in support of others. Some defenders of Clinton claim that what the GOP seems to want is quasi-isolationism for the military, keeping it away from little regional conflicts while it readies itself for a large-scale war in Europe that has been made extremely unlikely by the fall of the Berlin Wall.