The perilous state of the US military is a recurrent theme on the campaign trail, with Republicans enthusiastically carrying the tune. But is it off key?
After all, we're talking about far and away the most powerful armed forces in the world. The United States spends more on defense than all its Western allies combined.
But the issue isn't really size. It's how the forces are structured and used. And it's recruiting and retaining good people - in a word, morale.
The numbers of overseas deployments have skyrocketed over the past 10 years - an increase of 300 percent over the cold-war years. At the same time, US forces have been cut by about one-third. But those figures in themselves don't get at the problem. Cuts were in order once the massive Soviet threat disappeared. The challenge is how to most effectively use, and support, the forces - still very substantial - that remain.
A few suggestions:
*Make sure the forces get restructured to reflect the needs of today. The more frequent deployments are onerous largely because they draw repeatedly on the same units - light infantry, for example, or military police, or air reconnaissance. These types of forces are most suited to peacekeeping duties. Meanwhile, other units - such as the Army's armored divisions that were the backbone of cold-war defense in Europe - are relatively idle.
*Broadly focus efforts to improve the "quality of life" for people in uniform. The recent 4.8 percent pay raise was warranted. But the central concerns for married personnel, who are much more numerous in today's all-volunteer force, include child care, health plans, and housing. These areas are crucial to morale.
*Target future pay raises on the military jobs most affected by the loss of skilled people. Pilots, for example, or information-technology specialists. These people are crucial to the military, but easily lured away.
These steps would begin to reshape the US military to deal with two trends: a bountiful crop of regional conflicts and the coming of age of a volunteer military with many families that have two working parents.
Politicians should stop making it sound like America's armed forces are on the verge of collapse and start examining the real problems.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society