The real state of US readiness

They're both right. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, says the US military is in a state of decline, hobbled by low morale, dated equipment, and misdirected leadership.

Al Gore, the Democratic hopeful, counters that America's armed forces are the strongest in the world - proven in battle, smarter than ever before, light years ahead of crumbling rivals.

Those conflicting views about military readiness - and the Clinton administration's defense legacy - have become the center of a national debate as both candidates intensify their charges toward Nov. 7.

So how can both be correct?

For starters, Bush and Gore are sifting through the facts and clinging to those that best support their official positions. But beyond campaign rhetoric, the debate underscores a lingering disagreement in the United States about the role of the military - and whether it needs to be dramatically downsized, in function and funding.

Although today's climate is nothing like the 1980s, when defense was a core issue for elections, Americans still have strong feelings about a part of society that is both essential and financially draining. The topic tugs both ways.

Take Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander during its 78-day air war over Yugoslavia. When asked about the performance of US soldiers in action - the ultimate test of any military - the general speaks proudly.

Morale? "Great," he says. Readiness? "No problem."

US pilots flew 37,000 sorties and lost only two aircraft. No American soldier was killed by enemy fire.

Yet General Clark, now retired, can see greater challenges in the future, and weaknesses in the US armor. The US needs to be able to strike faster, he says, and not struggle with lack of manpower or integration problems among the different services.

"I'm concerned that we've come a long way from the cold war, yet most of the armed forces are still cold-war-based," Clark says. "Inevitably, it will need to be developed to the next level."

Define 'ready'

Objectively measuring military readiness is next to impossible, because there is no agreed-upon model, and because the Pentagon is reluctant to release detailed information. "It's difficult to argue with the guys who own the statistics," says Joseph Collins, a retired Pentagon official who is a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Pentagon assessment system gives more weight to current readiness - and takes for granted issues of continuity and long-term planning. In other words, a president can stack the numbers in his favor now, and leave his successor to clean up any mess later - just as President Clinton is accused of doing.

"There's a natural contradiction between long-term and near-term readiness," says Elizabeth Heeter, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment here. "Clinton has focused on the day to day."

She says Clinton will spend about two-thirds of this year's $300 billion defense budget on immediate needs: personnel (including a 3.7 percent pay raise), operation costs, and maintenance. The final third of the defense budget - a figure critics say is too small - will go to long-term investments, such as research, development, and procurement. Although Clinton will not make a final decision on deploying a national missile defense shield, the Pentagon will continue to work on improving the technology.

In its most recent quarterly readiness report to Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff give themselves fairly high marks. The report says "most major combat and key support forces are ready" for two simultaneous wars, the Defense Department's current goal. The Pentagon boasts of rising recruiting and retention numbers and improvements in equipment readiness.

"The force may be marginally smaller than it was 10 years ago, but it's a more capable group," says a senior Pentagon official.

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.

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

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