- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2002

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott has been known to resort to a "come to Jesus" meeting when things get bad, like in 1998 when the military's combat readiness was slipping fast.
In his ornate Capitol Hill office sat Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton. Later, the four service chiefs came to see Mr. Lott.
"Gentlemen, you know our situation is subpar and deteriorating, and it's happening on your watch and mine," the majority leader recalls saying in the pivotal sessions. "I don't know what you're going to do about it, even if I think you should show leadership, but I'm going to do something about it."
Spare-parts shortages, dips in retention and recruitment, and overworked ships and planes all combined to create the worst military readiness rates since the years immediately following the Vietnam War. President Clinton was sending the military on a record number of wars and peacekeeping operations, critics said, while keeping the defense budget on a downward track.
In a recent interview on the state of today's military, Mr. Lott says he remained skeptical four years ago that the chiefs would buck the Clinton White House. (After his retirement, one former chief said in an interview that he had been "chewed out" by civilian political appointees for breaking ranks and testifying that the military was hurting.)
The Mississippi Republican said he told the chiefs they should not waste Congress' time if they would not testify frankly. "I used to ask them, 'Why do you guys put up with this. why don't some of you resign?'"
From the fall of 1998 and into 1999, what ensued was a series of successive defense spending increases, as well as a big pay boost for service members. As Mr. Lott demanded, the chiefs delivered candid testimony on the same readiness problems they did not disclose in previous congressional appearances.
Today, Mr. Lott and a number of top military leaders believe that the readiness of the 1.4 million armed forces is improving. Recruitment is up, after the Army, Navy and Air Force missed, or almost missed, goals for the first time in two decades. Retention of key personnel has improved as well.
The Air Force has reversed a downward spiral in the mission-capable rates of its jet fighter the backbone of the service. After dipping to 73.8 percent two years ago, the rate has bounced back to 76.4 percent this year, thanks to improved maintenance.
An Army spokesman declined to give statistics, saying, "As a war approaches, no one wants to say where our weaknesses are."
A Navy official said Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, diverted millions of dollars toward improving readiness, especially carrier aviation, which was hampered by high cannibalization rates to keep deployed planes flying. The rate of raiding one plane to keep another one airborne is dropping. And pilots in 11 air wings, whether at sea or awaiting sea duty, are getting more flying hours.
"I think it's obviously much, much better prepared," says Mr. Lott, who plays an influential role in shaping each year's defense budget, which is now approaching $400 billion. "The morale is better. The quality of life is better I think the pay raise was as much as an important thing, just because it showed at a critical moment we did hear them. We did care."
The military, however, still faces shortfalls. During strikes on Afghanistan, the Navy nearly ran out of kits to turn a "dumb" bomb into a satellite-guided one. The Navy has fired two aircraft carrier commanders for running substandard ships. Housing also remains dismal on some bases.
President Bush's overall defense plan is ambitious. He has boosted defense spending by $48 billion for fiscal year 2003, and wants the armed forces transformed into a lighter, faster warfighting machine. He expects it to simultaneously fight in Afghanistan, protect Europe and South Korea, and conquer and occupy Iraq.
Democrats have recently accused Mr. Bush of injecting politics into the debate over Iraq. They wonder if the White House is pushing military action to help Republican candidates in the Nov. 5 elections. Some Democrats remind reporters that when Mr. Lott was majority leader, he questioned whether politics played a role in some of Mr. Clinton's decisions to use force.
Mr. Lott says that of all of Mr. Clinton's air strikes against Sudan, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Iraq, the senator only vehemently questioned one operation: the four days of bombing Baghdad just as the House began the impeachment debate.
"I remember questioning Shelton and Cohen, 'You guys wouldn't do this if it wasn't really justified would you?'"
Asked how the two men responded, Mr. Lott says, "I'll save that for another day."


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