Flying daily patrols over the volatile Persian Gulf, pilots in Air Force Gen. Hal Hornburg's command are among the more than 250,000 American troops overseas as part of what the Pentagon calls "the tip of the spear."
The leading edge of United States global power, these land, sea, and air units are without peer. Yet General Hornburg is worried. Tight funds have left him scrambling for spare parts - items like jet engines. He's also short on personnel. As a result he says his air crews' combat readiness is "naggingly down."
"We're not in the dark days," says Hornburg, who oversees US air operations in the Middle East from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "But it's not as bright as I would like it to be."
As they confront threats from the Balkans to the Korean peninsula, commanders are voicing increasingly grave concerns over US combat preparedness. They warn of serious strains as defense spending shrinks for a 14th consecutive year amid post-cold-war manpower cuts and a grinding level of overseas commitments.
Just how dire the problem has become is unclear: The military's state of readiness can truly be tested only by a major conflict.
The issue was a key item of discussion Tuesday between President Clinton, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and top US commanders in Washington.
Some officers, as well as members of Congress, assert that wear and tear has put at risk the Pentagon's strategy of being able to fight and win two major wars at almost the same time in different regions of the world.
"We can no longer train and sustain the force, stop infrastructure degradation, and provide our soldiers the ... programs critical to long-term readiness," Gen. David Bramlett, commander of US-based Army forces, wrote in an Aug. 20 memo to the Army chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer.
"This threatens our ability to mobilize, deploy, fight and win," says the memo, a copy of which the Monitor obtained.
Others reject the notion that today's military is approaching the demoralized and equipment-short "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam era.
"We are certainly far closer to where we were at the time of Desert Storm than where we were in the late '70s and early '80s," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, an independent think tank in Washington. "But it is something that you have to watch very closely. There has been some slippage."
Adm. Joseph Lopez, commander of US and NATO forces in southern Europe, says his units are maintaining "the highest state of readiness" and have had no personnel shortages or spare-parts snafus. Yet he concedes the US is not building ships fast enough to replace those that are wearing out. Mr. Cohen acknowledges "signs of some erosion," but insists "the tip of the spear" is as sharp as ever.
While quantifying the depth of the problems is difficult, anecdotal evidence is mounting:
There's been a steep decline in Air Force planes in good enough shape to fly missions. In 1991, 83.4 percent of aircraft were "mission capable"; now only 74.6 percent are.
Air Force pilots, each of whom cost $6 million to train, are quitting in large numbers for better-paying civilian jobs. An 1,800 pilots shortfall is forecast by 2002.
Five of the Army's 10 combat divisions lack enough majors, captains, noncommissioned officers, tankers, and gunners, according to a March 20 report by the General Accounting Office. Such problems have "degraded [the] capability and readiness" of these contingents, which must reinforce troops fighting a first major regional war or rush to the front lines of a second.
The Marine Corps is now using retreads on vehicles. Some Army trucks in Europe reportedly have more than 1 million miles on them. Navy and air force units are having to cannibalize more aircraft to keep others flying.
The issue of readiness has long been fiercely disputed between the Clinton administration and the GOP-run Congress.
Critics accuse Mr. Clinton of jeopardizing national security by committing the military to Bosnia and Somalia and forcing it to pay the costs out of accounts that support readiness - from maintenance to quality-of-life programs.
They also point out that the Pentagon has had to postpone plans to hike annual modernization funds to $60 billion, the minimum level the services say they need to replace equipment averaging about 20 years old.
The services, meanwhile, have been shedding personnel: they're down to 1.4 million full-time troops, one-third of the cold-war level.
To address the problems - as well as bow to defense contractors and workers in their districts - lawmakers added billions of dollars to the president's proposed Pentagon budget yearly from 1995 until 1997. The balanced-budget accord has now capped annual defense funds at $270 billion through 2002. Adjusted for inflation, that means annual spending will keep decreasing.
Earlier this year, minority Democrats on the House National Security Committee joined Republicans in calling on Congress and the White House to renegotiate the balanced-budget accord to provide more funds for defense. They argued readiness funds for 1999 to 2003 had projected shortfalls totaling $59 billion.
That appeal helped prompt Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi to urge Clinton in June to boost Pentagon spending. Clinton refused, insisting his long-range defense plans "struck a fine balance between near-term readiness, long-term modernization, and quality-of-life improvements."
Clinton also pointed out that his administration has boosted dollars for flying hours, spare parts, and depot maintenance.
Ironically, many of those in Congress calling for more money have balked at Clinton's proposal to close unneeded military bases. They have also added tens of millions of dollars to the defense budget for weapons the Pentagon never asked for. Some experts say it is not necessary to significantly boost the defense budget. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington says readiness can be addressed through belt-tightening, closure of unneeded bases, and a little more money.
But unless provisions are made to replace aging equipment, Mr. O'Hanlon agrees combat capabilities could be dangerously eroded. "The day of reckoning is getting closer."
* David Moniz contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.