Earlier this month, the House Armed Services Committee got a classified briefing about US military readiness. Details were disturbing, but the implication was jaw-dropping: The US armed services are literally at the breaking point. This is not hyperbole or partisan rhetoric. It is stark reality – and it requires immediate attention.
That's why Congress must reassert its constitutional responsibility to provide for America's armed services. This begins with the Armed Services Committees, which have already begun hearings on the 2008 National Defense Authorization bill.
The readiness challenges facing the US military today are immense. Consider these facts supplied to Congress:
•Not one Army unit in the continental US – including the National Guard – has all the trained personnel and equipment needed to complete their missions today, either in combat or in response to domestic natural disasters or attacks.
•Roughly half of all the ground equipment the US Army owns is currently in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since the start of the war in Iraq, the Army has lost nearly 2,000 wheeled vehicles and more than 100 armored vehicles. Harsh climate and terrain, virtually continuous combat, and the weight of extra armor are wearing out equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan at up to nine times the normal rate.
•The situation is even worse for the National Guard. The regular Army has lost so much equipment that they're using Guard equipment as replacements. Combined with years of underfunding, Guard units are left with only about one-third of their own equipment.
These urgent equipment shortages, compounded by the Bush administration's financial mismanagement of the war effort, hurt the military's ability to fight and train. Both Guard and active Army units are forced to prepare and train for deployment with minimal equipment. That would be like preparing for a football game without ever practicing in pads.
The Iraq war has also badly damaged US military recruitment. In 2005, the Army missed its recruiting goal by more than 8 percent, or almost 6,700 soldiers. Army strength has been maintained by offering expensive reenlistment bonuses.
The Pentagon has resorted to a "backdoor draft" – extending combat deployments in Iraq – just to retain current force levels. The current escalation includes soldiers "backdoor drafted" for duty, and the use of National Guard and Reserve forces as de facto active duty units through multiple, continuous deployments.
Casualties, meanwhile, are coming home at the fastest rate since Vietnam. Media reports about life in outpatient care at Walter Reed, the "crown jewel" of the Army's medical system, have saddened or angered all who read them. This treatment of the men and women who come home from war traumatized in mind or decimated in body reflects badly on America.
Ensuring military readiness is a continuous effort that's been badly damaged by overextension in Iraq. We must shore up both short-term and long-term readiness. Short-term readiness addresses the needs of soldiers in the field today. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by shortages of basic equipment, from Kevlar vests and helmets to up-armored Humvees, which are better able to protect personnel from roadside bombs.
Long-term readiness encompasses everything from manpower, training, and equipment to pre-positioned stores of military equipment strategically located around the world in case of emergencies. (These stocks have been virtually drained for Iraq operations, the General Accountability Office reports.) It also includes "resetting" the force – restoring equipment to prewar condition – which will be costly.
Let us be clear: The United States has the finest fighting force in the world. But the Bush administration has supported this world-class force with second-class funding. The resulting low readiness levels put the entire country at risk. Lack of proper equipment makes it that much harder for US forces to succeed in Afghanistan or Iraq – or anywhere else.
How Congress can make a difference
Urgent congressional efforts to repair this damage must be part of a broader strategy of finding an exit from Iraq, improving US effectiveness in the real war on terrorists, and providing spending oversight to avoid crushing debt burdens.
President Bush has used Congress as a money spigot, funding military operations through a series of emergency budget requests with no oversight. The government has spent money it didn't have and paid for it with deficit spending – essentially raising taxes on America's children.
That's about to change.
We're committed to funding major recurring war costs through the regular budget process, while ensuring that real emergencies, real unforeseen expenses, and real battlefield needs are funded quickly. With Democrats in power, the American people can expect requests by the Pentagon and administration for "emergency" supplemental funds to be scrutinized much more closely.
We understand that wars always give rise to unforeseen circumstances and unexpected needs. However, there will be no more blank checks for Defense spending unrelated to battlefield needs. Everything must be prioritized so Congress can make the most informed choices.
Last year, we asked the administration to include recurring and foreseeable funding needs in the 2008 Defense budget request that goes through the normal authorization and appropriations cycle. Instead, we received Mr. Bush's request for three separate pots of money for military operations:
•An emergency supplemental request of $93.4 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan (the second such request in 2007).
•The regular 2008 Defense Budget request of $481.4 billion.
•Another emergency supplemental request of $141.7 billion for 2008 operations in both wars.
Supplemental appropriations are supposed to address emergencies that simply cannot wait for the regular process, replacing equipment lost or damaged in battle and other "war costs." How is it that an emergency supplemental request exists to pay for emergencies next year?
The president's 2007 emergency request includes billions of dollars in developmental spending under the guise of "emergency" replacement. Supplemental spending should address emergency needs, not future defense systems that won't help soldiers on the ground for years to come. That's why we're calling on the administration to end the practice of paying for war costs with "emergency" funds.
At this moment, US forces are conducting a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and trying to referee a civil war in Iraq – both unconventional conflicts. Yet no one would suggest the US no longer needs forces ready to fight on a conventional battlefield. Nobody knows where the next enemy may emerge or how future wars will be fought. Clearly, the US must be ready for any eventuality.
Make no mistake: The US is not at war, the US military is. The burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is being carried by our soldiers and their families. The rest of us merely observe their sacrifice on TV.
Members of Congress can do their part by giving the US military the support and equipment it needs to win.
• Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces. Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D) of Texas is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.