Defense priority No. 1: military readiness

Pentagon faces hard spending choices. Will it be pricey weapons or GI boots?

The budget President Bush sent to Congress this week has very little detail on defense spending. The true military expense list will come a few months from now after the administration has figured out how many wars it wants to be prepared to fight and how to fight them.

But the one sure thing is that Bush & Co. believe strongly - as do many outside experts - that military readiness needs improvement.

Gear is wearing out. Pilots aren't getting enough flying time. It's getting harder to recruit new soldiers due to low pay, inadequate housing, and other "quality of life" issues. Overseas units are so involved with "peacekeeping" that some are failing to meet actual war-fighting standards because they miss training exercises back in the states.

"Readiness is in jeopardy - both now and in the future - because of aging, overused equipment, rapidly increasing costs and shortages of spare parts, and operational funding," warns Senator John Warner (R) of Virginia, Armed Services Committee chairman.

Meanwhile, the post-cold-war military cutbacks enacted over the past decade (by Republicans as well as Democrats) are putting an added strain on the armed services. Army divisions are down to 10 from 18. Air Force fighter wings have been cut from 36 to 20. And the Navy's fleet, which once stood at nearly 600 ships, is down to little more than half that. In all, there are 700,000 fewer active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in uniform.

At the same time, US military planning continues to be based on the ability to fight two "major theater wars." And all of this is happening at a time when new threats and contingencies need to be planned for in a single-superpower world where military readiness could be more important than ever.

"Cold war readiness standards no longer suffice as measures of our capability to meet today's operational requirements," says Army Chief of Staff Erik Shinseki. "Our soldiers believe that the Army is too small for the missions it's asked to perform and under-resourced for the operational tempo it executes."

Pressure from all sides

Bush is under pressure from left and right. Hawks are pushing for a bigger defense budget. Doves say closing more superfluous military bases and killing extravagant and redundant big-ticket weapons could free up money for spare parts and training. Other experts say overseas commitments could be adjusted to assure a more-prepared and better-equipped fighting force.

What's a commander in chief to do - especially one who, during the recent presidential campaign, promised the troops that "help is on the way?"

For starters, Bush's $311 billion Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2002 includes a $1.4 billion increase for pay and benefits. While the details of the administration's overall military review are yet to be revealed, candidate Bush's advisers (some of whom are now in his cabinet) talked about reducing US military commitments abroad. The Clinton administration also worried about stretching US forces too thin.

"Large numbers of commitments not only stress unit training and morale, but also recruiting and retention," former Defense Secretary William Cohen warned in his last annual report to the president and Congress.

Military families know that

firsthand. "In today's family force, the decision to leave the military or stay, to accept a potentially career-enhancing assignment at the cost of family separation or to move but once again is a family decision," says Joyce Wessel Raezer, an Army wife and deputy director of the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. "And often, that family decision boils down to one question: Is it worth it?"

Not everyone agrees

But not all observers agree that US military forces are over-worked or spread too thinly around the world.

The Project on Defense Alternatives, a research group in Cambridge, Mass., notes that since the Gulf War, an average of just 40,000 troops have been deployed overseas at any given time - less than 12 percent of the total, even when quadrupled to account for troop rotation. (This does not include those based abroad with their families.)

"Readiness, more than any other aspect of military capability, depends on how a military is organized and carries out its business," states a recent report by the organization. "For this reason a failure to adapt the organization and functioning of our armed forces to new circumstances might express itself as readiness problems. And, indeed, in a variety of ways defense managers have failed to adapt our armed forces to the new era."

One answer, suggests defense specialist Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, is to scale back such longstanding US military deployments as marines on Okinawa, aircraft carrier battle groups in the Mediterranean, Air Force aircraft over Iraq, and the military presence in Bosnia. Such reductions, he says, could be carried out without harming US security interests.

Overall, says Dr. O'Hanlon, "the quality of people, equipment, and training has given the United States a military in very fine shape." Still, he observes in his recent book on defense policy, "there are cracks in the US armed forces that, if allowed to worsen, could change the basic readiness picture within a few years."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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