- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

U.S. military combat readiness, a hot debate in the presidential elections, continues to suffer two years after the Pentagon acknowledged shortfalls.
The Navy is short on sailors and ships at sea. The Air Force lacks 1,200 pilots and continues a downward trend in readiness. Army soldiers complain of reduced training time and morale.
But the services have plugged holes in recruiting and retention of some critically needed personnel after Congress and the White House increased pay and benefits.
The root of the problem, analysts and soldiers say, stems from President Clinton's decision in 1993 to double five-year Pentagon cuts, to $128 billion, that had been put in place by President Bush and his defense secretary, Richard B. Cheney. The post-Cold War reductions were followed by Mr. Clinton sending troops on a record number of peacetime deployments in the 1990s, including major conflicts against Iraq and Serbia.
Equipment wore out. Spare parts dried up. And personnel, weary of months overseas, quit.
"You cut the force by more than a third, you cut the budget by 40 percent and then you raise the number of deployments by 300 percent and that's a situation that is going to make trouble inside the military," said retired Army Col. Joseph Collins. Col. Collins spearheaded an expansive study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that concluded in January that morale and readiness were down across the military.
Col. Collins said morale has been boosted by pay increases and better retirement benefits, but the problem still exists.
"You have had the strange situation of a decline in perceived readiness affecting morale," he said. "Everywhere we went we had people tell us we are tired of doing more with less."
The two major presidential candidates made their cases last week in speeches before the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Republican George W. Bush and his running mate, Mr. Cheney, charge that the Clinton-Gore administration let readiness slip to dangerously low levels.
"There is an enormous amount of evidence out there … that the question in terms of readiness and morale, the problems with recruiting, problems with retention, that the military is in trouble today," Mr. Cheney said yesterday on NBC. "They've cut too far. They've cut too deep. They've also added commitments. A big part of the difficulty … is the force is spread too thin."
On ABC's "This Week," the former defense secretary said: "There are serious problems out there in respect to the overall quality of the force. There's no question that we've got a great military today, but it's headed in the wrong direction."
Based on his discussions with military people, he said, "either Al Gore doesn't know what's going on in the U.S. military, or he's chosen not to tell the truth about it."
Vice President Al Gore and Democrats counter that the problem is more complex than Mr. Cheney presents and the U.S. military is the world's finest, proving itself once again in the 1999 air war over Serbia.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who followed Mr. Cheney on NBC, said: "Dick Cheney is flat wrong, and George Bush is flat wrong, about questions of preparedness." He blamed the booming civilian economy for problems with military recruiting and retention but said the Clinton administration is working to change that with pay increases and other personnel moves.
Still, he said, "We have the best trained, most extraordinary military in the history of humankind."
Both are right, analysts say, so the issue may settle on which man can make the stronger case. The armed forces are less combat ready than eight years ago, but still are top dog among all the world's armies.
Mr. Cheney acknowledged as much: "If you match our forces today up against any others around the world, we've got the best force. The problem is it's in decline, and this administration has done very little to reverse that decline."
Personnel in the field told The Washington Times their units are still hampered by spare-parts shortages, old equipment, condensed training hours and, in some cases, poorly trained technicians in a rapid turnover of personnel.
In addition to these soldiers' testimonies, other sources report similar problems:
The bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee budget report this May states: "Aging equipment, spare parts shortfalls, manning and experience gaps continue to manifest themselves in terms of declining mission capable rates and decreasing unit readiness ratings… . Most troubling are indications that problems are emerging in the readiness of forward-deployed and first-to-fight units."
The Army has set up a special panel to figure out why it is losing so many captains its future field commanders. Two recent surveys showed the captains are disenchanted with peacekeeping missions and Army leadership.
The Navy is short on seamen. It puts the at-sea shortfall on any given day at "less than 10,000." It's fleet has shrunk from 443 ships in 1993 to 316, a figure even below Mr. Clinton's target of 346. The shortage means ships and sailors are at sea more often to cover the Navy's worldwide commitments.
The Air Force needs 13,424 active-duty pilots, but remains about 1,200 short. The gap has stabilized, however. The mission-capable rate of major weapon systems such as fighters and bombers sits at 73 percent, a 10 percent decline since 1991, and a further erosion the past two years.
An Air Force statement to The Times says, "Ten-year trend shows a steady decline in readiness as measured in percent of top two readiness categories. Though steps have been taken to arrest the decline, overall readiness (combat and non-combat forces) continues to decrease from 92 percent in 1990 to 78 percent today."
Two officers interviewed by The Times contended commanders submit unrealistically rosy readiness reports up the chain of command to protect their chances of promotion.
"It irks me to hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs say that everything is hunky-dory," an Army helicopter pilot said, referring to Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton. "You see that so much in the leadership. A unit will have a training exercise and the troops will note a huge number of deficiencies. When the final 'after action' report comes out, though, all the leadership is seeing who can praise each other the most."
"Yes, Governor Bush is right," said an Army special operations officer who, like other active-duty people, asked to remain anonymous. "I am in Special Forces and no matter what, morale will be higher than in a normal unit. But it is a wearing thing for us also. We do too many missions to too many places. We do it with less money, less training time."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, has not injected himself into the presidential debate. But he does defend the state of today's military and in effect his own stewardship when questioned by reporters.
"We are ready. We are prepared," Mr. Cohen told reporters Aug. 18. "As a matter of fact, I think morale is increasing. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll be able to come to you and lay out exactly where we are on retention, recruitment and what I see as an increase rather than a decrease in morale."
Many defense experts agree that the Ronald Reagan military buildup of the 1980s produced the finest military ever fielded. The volunteer force developed an unmatched esprit de corps, from aircraft maintenance workers and infantrymen to sailors and combat pilots.
In fact, Mr. Cohen has repeatedly said that decade's modernization enabled the force to carry out an array of missions in the 1990s.
Since Mr. Clinton took office, the military has operated under intense operational and social pressures. Commanders have been embroiled in an endless debate on homosexuals. Pentagon political appointees launched an unprecedented campaign to wipe out sexual harassment, creating an array of sensitivity sessions and urging people to file complaints.
The real rub occurred when Mr. Clinton began deploying forces around the world on a record 48 peace enforcement and combat missions by 1999, costing $30 billion.
The Army, Navy and Air Force all missed recruiting goals for the first time since the late 1970s.
The Navy could not afford necessary flying hours for pilots on shore between carrier deployments. The result: Some units did not reach acceptable readiness levels until their carrier actually arrived on station.
"Training readiness has been degraded among our non-deployed forces, particularly among the aviation community," Adm. Jay Johnson, then chief of naval operations, told a Senate committee in 1999.
A senior Senate defense staffer issued a report earlier this year that painted a poor picture of Air Force-Navy pilot training.
"At our premier air combat training facilities, we have too few instructor pilots, too few aircraft for them to fly; old, sometimes structurally failing aircraft… ." said the report. "These aging aircraft are inadequately supplied with spare parts and they routinely lack basic weapon system components that student pilots will be required to use in combat."
During the Kosovo conflict last year, the Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) in Langley, Va., wrote a bluntly worded memo, obtained by The Times.
"Our operational units are suffering," it said. "Numerous ACC units have low sortie ratings due to inadequate spares support. Few serviceable spare engines, depleted wartime spare kits. Although the leading causes vary by unit, inadequate funding in '96 and '97 was the underlying cause."
In the Army, two of 10 active divisions were not combat ready for a brief period. It missed recruiting goals in 1998 and '99, forcing planners to lower standards and offer huge increases in sign-up bonuses to meet this year's quota.
At first, the Pentagon refused to acknowledge the problem. In fact, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (with the exception of Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak) in February 1998 told Congress' military committees that the state of the military was good.
But congressional Republicans knew otherwise based on anecdotal information reaching Washington. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, sent Mr. Clinton a letter saying the force needed an infusion of quick cash. The president was noncommittal.
The Senate Armed Services Committee then held hearings to shed light on the problem. Staffers worked behind the scenes to persuade the Joint Chiefs to publicly admit the force was in trouble and to ask Mr. Clinton for more money.
The gambit worked. The chiefs reversed themselves in the fall of 1998, admitted there were shortfalls and urged Mr. Clinton to offer up more money, which Congress topped with extra cash.
Unwittingly, the Republicans' quick action may be helping Mr. Gore. Increased defense budgets allowed the services to put more recruiters in the field and increase inducements. Pilots received higher retention bonuses. Spare-parts assembly lines started up again. Training hours increased. Retention improved.
"There are some structural problems that we have, particularly in our support elements, that need to be corrected," Ret. Gen. George Joulwan, former supreme commander of NATO, said on "Fox News Sunday."
"But we have, I think, a ready Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines to do the job assigned."
Joyce Howard Price contributed to this report.

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