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So Who is Right on this "Readiness" Issue?

Posted August 30, 2000

— Both political party conventions highlighted the topic of the armed forces and military readiness in this election year.

George W. Bush noted that two of the Army's 10 divisions were not combat ready. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, said that made him "angry." Not "angry" that they weren't ready, but "angry" because the Republicans made such a statement, which he doesn't believe to be the case.

The real problem with this political quarrel, and a very significant issue in America, is how we define readiness. Every four years the Department of Defense performs a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The last such review was in 1997 and another is slated for next year.

The 1997 QDR called for the United States Armed Forces to be able to fight two major regional conflicts (let's say in Korea and the Persian Gulf) simultaneously. This was a reiteration of a policy that dates back to the early days of the Clinton administration.

The intent of this policy is rather clear. If we are engaged in a major regional conflict, such as in Kosovo last spring, we should have adequate military forces trained and equipped to deter another aggressor, such as Korea or Iraq, from taking advantage of our being tied down in Kosovo.

Some may say that Kosovo was certainly not a major regional conflict. Let me put that in perspective. A greater percentage of the United States Air Force active duty units were committed to the 1999 Serbia/Kosovo engagement than were committed to Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. In fact, it was also larger than the percentage of USAF forces deployed during Vietnam. Fortunately, North Korea's Kim Jung-Il didn't test our readiness during this period.

This fiscal year the Department of Defense budget was about $265 billion. That is a lot of money. And yet it is about the same percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as we had in 1940, and we all understand our lack of preparedness prior to WWII. The percentage share (of GDP) for defense hasn't been this low since the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Money can buy new weapons and spare parts; it can repair infrastructure. But each year that goes by without adequately funding these areas simply exacerbates the problem. Ships, tanks, airplanes, trucks, etc. are no different than your family car. They age! The older they get the harder they are to provide with spare parts, harder to maintain, less technologically capable of providing the winning edge in war.

The average age of USAF aircraft is 20 years. The venerable B-52 strategic bomber is early 1950s technology. There is talk of keeping it flying until about 2040. Yes, I know there are upgrades to the systems and the engines, for example. But those airframes could be flying for 75-80 years.

In March of this year, General Mike Ryan, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, noted that the average combat unit readiness is under 70 percent. The Air Force goal to meet the assigned tasks is about 92 percent.

A month later, General Eric Shinseki, the Chief of Staff of the Army, told a United States Senate Subcommittee on Defense: "We are able today to meet the requirements of the NMS (National Military Strategy), but there is moderate risk associated with fighting the first MTW (Major Theater War) and higher levels of risk associated with the second MTW." In that same testimony General Shinseki said, "...we have traditionally been a C-1 (the highest readiness status) Army, but we are not fully C-1 today."

All of the branches of the armed forces today are confronted with aging equipment, a shortage of spare parts, infrastructure that is decades behind in upgrades and repairs, and a seriously eroding morale among those serving on active duty. Why is this?

During the Cold War, we all could clearly see the enemy threat. We had hundreds of thousands of military members stationed abroad, especially in Europe, to confront the Warsaw Pact nations. But that "enemy" collapsed about ten years ago and new threats emerged.

In this "new world order" (and that's an oxymoron ) we are dispatching our troops to places like Panama, Somalia, Honduras, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Within the last decade there has been a 35 percent reduction of uniformed men and women. However, the deployment rate to such contingencies has quadrupled. And the bad news is that many of these deployments don't promise an exit strategy.

Nearly ten years after Desert Storm we are still engaged over the skies of Iraq; there are battalion size task forces exercising in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; and the U.S. Navy maintains a carrier task force in the area around the clock.

It's been four years since the Dayton Peace accords were signed with great fanfare, yet we still have thousands of U.S. soldiers in Bosnia enforcing the agreement.

Of course there are still remnants of the Cold War era deployments that demand much of our military talent and treasure. For example, we have witnessed nearly two decades of support to the United Nations in the Sinai; and, as I noted in my column in June, it is now 50 years of U.S. presence in Korea.

Last month I noted that recruiting for the armed forces is difficult. It is also very difficult to retain highly skilled troops that can't see adequate funding for new and advanced technology, for spare parts, for adequate housing, for quality medical care and for an adequate income without relying on food stamps.

These troops also need to believe that all of these deployments are in the national interests, and that there may be a time where they are not being constantly rotated from one hot spot to another. They, like the rest of us, want to have some semblance of a family life. The solution is clear to me: either more members on active duty and the costs associated with those troops, or fewer clearly defined deployments and employments which are truly in the national interest.

It is time for America to determine just what is in the national interest, and what is the role for its military forces. This is not clearly defined nor understood today. Most importantly, it is not well understood by many in uniform.

The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review was criticized for making the strategy fit the limited dollars available. That should not be the case in a nation such as ours.

Let's hope the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review focuses on our national security interests, the potential threats and the resources needed to pursue our national military strategies.

Can we as a nation afford to once again beef up our national defense? Can we afford not to? This is the third in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.


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