Peace Time: October 17, 2001


Readiness: Nowhere To Go But Up- The new war on terrorism comes at a time when the readiness of US forces is at an all-time low. Years of slashed budgets and increased deployments have left the military with huge debts in unbought parts, unreplaced ammunition, untrained soldiers, and unmaintained equipment and facilities. Scavenging and cannibalization are common, and wrecked vehicles are stripped of even minor parts to save money in the inadequate budgets. Training has been cut as fast as ammunition, leaving the military with people who are just not as well trained today as they were a decade ago. Pilots have flown fewer hours, infantry have spent less time running through the woods, tanks have spent less time maneuvering on the south plains of Texas. Not only are there few spare parts in the stockpile, but the falling budgets have driven many of the companies that made those parts out of business. The backlog on building maintenance is $27 billion, and will cost double that when you consider that emergency repairs cost more, buildings that needed repairs and didn't get them suffered additional damage from leaks and other problems, and that many bases have to scramble to find emergency storage or housing when an unrepaired building suddenly becomes uninhabitable. The Navy was shorted money it needed for ship maintenance, sending many ships to sea without needed repairs. During 1999 alone, some $674 million in repairs were not done for the Pacific Fleet alone. This year, due to increased funding, all scheduled repairs were conducted, but that still leaves a four-year backlog of delayed repairs from previous years (costing an extra $100 million per year). The Navy stockpile is short 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles, the weapon of choice in the various wars since 1990. The Navy is also too small, and that isn't going to change very fast. A decade ago, the 529-ship Navy kept 22% of its ships at sea. Since the same number of ships are getting ready to deploy and the same number are just back from deployment and undergoing serious maintenance, that left 34% of the Navy (over 150 ships) as a "cushion" to handle sudden emergencies such as wars. Today, the much smaller Navy (316 ships) keeps 31% of its ships at sea, meaning that the "cushion" is down to under two dozen ships. The Army, Marines, and Air Force are in a similar situation. For the Army, it is worse since entire brigades used for peacekeeping are effectively useless for months before and after their other-than-war mission as they have to be retrained from combat to peace support and then re-re-trained back to combat.

Some of the problems are the result of systems kept in service a few years too long. Delays in the F18E Super Hornet and Joint Strike Fighter will keep F-14 Tomcats flying for another decade, and these venerable but now ancient warriors consume maintenance funds by the barrel. The Army ammunition stockpile is short by $3 billion. Recent environmental restrictions have caused more problems. Camp Pendelton can only use 10% of its beaches for amphibious training much of the year, and cannot dig foxholes in most areas for fear of causing erosion. The Army lost half of its training areas at Fort Irwin to the desert tortoise and other wildlife, then faced furious opposition when it wanted to take over thousands of uninhabited acres of desert that was a favorite haunt of weekend rock collectors.

The biggest problem, however, is not the maintenance that was never done or the ammunition that was never bought, but is the personnel who left and were not replaced. An entire generation of junior officers and junior sergeants left the service. Lowering standards and promoting Specialists to Sergeant makes the numbers look good but means that the team leader with three stripes today knows only half as much about tactics and leadership as the three-stripe sergeant who had that job a few years ago.

Things are getting better. Congress provided an extra $5.6 billion for the military in a special supplement this year (much as it did when Reagan replaced Carter) to make up for shortfalls, particularly in readiness. Congress is ready to pass a $33 billion increase for next year, and the Pentagon expects a hefty chunk of the $40 billion emergency anti-terrorism package. Unlike the Kosovo War, the Afghan War will probably pay its own bills rather than stealing from the ammunition and training budgets. And the Afghan War is, frankly, so small an operation that the military can pick and choose its best units, and steal parts or ammunition from several units to beef up each one that is actually deploying.--Stephen V Cole


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