Two Sets of Books; During wartime, the troops get better. Practice and experience definitely have an effect. But during peacetime something worse happens. Not only does the lack of practice make the troops less ready to survive real combat, but the commanders have a vested interest in denying that this is happening. The rot sets in rather quickly after the last war. Training for combat is not only a lot of work, but it's also dangerous. Realistic training means some of the troops are going to get hurt or killed. This is a political no-no, at least in democracies. At the same time, a democracy demands accountability from its elected officials. If the taxpayers are going to fork over billions a year for defense, they want to be reassured that the money is buying real, kick ass, combat power.
What's a general to do? Simple, keep two sets of books. Generals have to be concerned with their own politicians as much as with potential battlefield foes. What you know to be true about your combat readiness has to be squared with what you know your political bosses want to hear. If you don't tell the politicians everything is OK, they will replace you with someone who will.
We all know what one set of books look like. This is the official line presented to the media and Congress. In a nutshell, the official line is, "we have some problems, but everything is under control."
Things are out of control. It began with changing basic training from a conditioning process that turned undisciplined civilians into disciplined soldiers to something far less. Discipline is essential for military operations. In life and death situations, failure to act promptly and efficiently when ordered to will get you killed. This destruction of basic training was not done on purpose, but to accommodate the decision in the early 1990s to integrate men and women in basic training. For decades, male and female recruits got their basic separately. By putting them together it became obvious that the women could not compete physically and psychologically with the men. But a new policy, pushed by many in Congress, declared that men and women were equal on the battlefield and should take the same basic training. When the military found this did not work, they (with the exception of the Marines, who continued separate training) lowered the standards to suit weakest women. Much of the yelling and verbal abuse delivered by drill sergeants was also eliminated, for while it turned the men into disciplined soldiers, it encouraged too many women to quit. After all, women did not join the army with any thought of combat, but for a job. Most of the men did not get combat assignments either, but everyone was aware that in a tight situation the non-combat soldiers might actually have to use their rifles and the place to make that point was basic training. In effect, basic became the old, but kinder and gentler, female version that taught you how to wear a uniform, march in formation and provided some familiarization with basic infantry weapons.
This change in basic training had a profound effect that no one wants to admit. Basically, the troops are much less disciplined and require much more supervision. This means, among other things, that officers often do supervisory tasks that NCOs used to handle. And the men going into combat jobs, in effect, did basic over, the old fashioned way, when they were given their additional training for specific jobs (infantry, artillery, tanks.) But the rest of the troops were less soldiers and more like civilians. It became harder to keep the troops on the straight and narrow. As a result, all services liberally use "administrative discharge" (ie, they fire troublesome soldiers) to get rid of most ill disciplined troops, or those who simply could not come to terms with being in the military. But this made more difficult to keep units up to strength. Commanders were encouraged to fire fewer troops and, in effect, put up with many of their young men and women who had not been convinced by basic training lite that they were now in the military.
It got worse. The shrinking budgets generated a situation where more money could be put into developing new weapons, keeping unneeded bases open, upgrading barracks and family housing, funding the needs of single parents, or training. Something had to give, and it was training, which was needed more than ever. But then, the loss would only be noticed if we went to war and American politicians were very much against any American casualties. Can't have a real war without someone getting killed, so training costs were cut. There was less money for using tanks, aircraft or ships. Fewer spare parts were bought (a lot of spares were needed if you used equipment a lot.) There was another reason for reducing training, it tended to get troops killed or injured. This was more of a problem now that so many recruits were getting eight weeks of coed camp instead of basic training.
When there is a military operation, like Kosovo, there is more juggling of the books. Units worldwide are stripped of competent troops and working equipment to fill the need. While much is said about having armed forces that can fight two wars at once, it turned out that we were barely able to support a few months of air operations over the Balkans. And the subsequent occupation of Kosovo with ground units has left far more units elsewhere incapable of combat operations.
As we enter the 21st century, the official word is that America is the world's only military superpower. That's what it says, and on paper it seems to be true. But the perception among current and potential superpower enemies is different. They know we are really weak.
Pray for peace, or more honest bookkeeping..