- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

The nation's top military officers yesterday raised their requests for increased defense spending, saying a busy 10 years of wars and peacekeeping have required billions of added dollars to replace worn-out weapons.

At a Senate hearing on the military's readiness problems, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said "first to fight" troops overseas are in good shape, but their reinforcement units back home still suffer a lack of training, spare parts and equipment.

Gen. Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs chairman, said a once-coveted target of $60 billion annually to buy new weapons and equipment is no longer adequate.

"One thing I think is obvious, and that is that $60 billion will not be enough to get the job done given our current strategy and force structure," Gen. Shelton told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "My message to you today is that you must accelerate the pace of replacing our rapidly deteriorating ships, aircraft, weapons and other essential military equipment."

The four-star officer said three-quarters of increased dollars for operations and maintenance the readiness account actually funded current operations instead of buying spare parts and repairing equipment.

Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said his fleet of aircraft is the oldest in Navy history. He said he needs to buy about 180 planes a year to sustain the current force but has only enough money for 128. The fleet requires nine new ships a year to maintain a 300-plus ship Navy, but procures fewer than seven.

The chiefs declined to say how much more money they will seek. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Tuesday that the Pentagon already is slated to receive $180 billion in increases over five years through combined White House proposals and congressional add-ons.

The precise request, the chiefs said, will not be known until the Pentagon completes its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) next year. The study sets the number of ships, fighter wings and other force structures needed to carry out the national military strategy of fighting two regional conflicts nearly simultaneously.

The chiefs of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy shifted their testimony somewhat since first acknowledging a readiness shortfall two years ago. They said a quick infusion of new money had halted a decline in deployed forces. But they now worry about future preparedness as aircraft and other weapon systems continue to age.

"We have arrested the decline in readiness among our active units, or leveled off," Gen. Shelton said. "We should experience an increasing trend in readiness, yes."

Added Gen. Eric Shinseki, the top Army officer, "We have for years mortgaged our future readiness, this modernization effort, in order to assure that our soldiers had in the near term what it takes to fight and win decisively."

At one point, Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, offered his partial solution. "You've got to be more assertive to cut down the rates of deployments," he said, a reference to the Clinton administration's sending troops on a record number of peacetime overseas missions in the 1990s.

Some of the chiefs seemed to give a less-optimistic assessment than Gen. Shelton's.

Adm. Clark said deployed carrier battle groups are in good shape, but sailors back home preparing for the next mission are "not where we want them to be." A recent Navy report on naval aviation said units have a "big problem" because of a lack of aircraft and bomb-target equipment for training pilots.

He said that although the Navy met recruiting goals for the past two years, retention of skilled sailors is too low, and the dropout rate is too high.

Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief, testified the readiness rate of major combat units dropped 23 percent since 1996.

"I must tell you that Air Force readiness has not turned around," he said. "At best, these efforts have leveled off the decline… . Because we must assure the readiness of our engaged forces overseas, we have done it at the expense of our stateside units."

Republicans generally blame President Clinton for the drop-off. They say he cut five-year defense spending in 1993 by $126 billion, then sent the military on more than 50 overseas wars and peace-enforcement missions.

Democrats say the cuts began with President Bush after the Cold War, and that new spending is fixing the problems.

"Our operational tempo remains high," Gen. Ryan said. "Our people are still deploying over three times more often with a force 60 percent its former size."

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