Congressional hearings should be held to determine whether the six military plane crashes since Sept. 13 are the result of massive cutbacks in defense spending and social experimentation by the Clinton administration, which has watered down qualifications for pilots in favor of advancing certain "preferred" groups.
President Clinton says there is nothing unusual about the incidents, and these sorts of things happen because flying military aircraft is a dangerous job. Maybe. But active-duty and recently retired pilots and their families suggest something else. Wives of military pilots have told me on several occasions how concerned they are for their husbands. Because of sharply reduced funding, they say their husbands' planes have been grounded because of a lack of fuel. The "cannibalization" of planes (taking parts from one plane so that another may fly), while not unusual, is said to be more widespread in the downsized military.
Pilots tell me they and their friends are retiring early because of low morale brought on by extended tours on boring "peacekeeping" duty and the double standard for women combat pilots, which has damaged unit cohesion.
Congress should especially be concerned about pilots with between 11 and 13 years' experience who are resigning. While some are lured by far better salaries with the commercial airlines, my conversations with others indicate that they would have stayed if conditions had not deteriorated.
Among the federal civilian and military positions lost since the end of fiscal year 1992, more than 89 percent (almost 760,000) have come from the Pentagon, according to Defense Department figures. This year there are 1.5 million fewer defense jobs (including those in the military, the civil service, and industry) than in 1992.
The end of the Cold War offers an opportunity to retool our defense forces and adapt them to a new era. But that retooling should not make the military less potent. And it should definitely not impair their readiness should a foreign challenge require immediate deployment for combat. As our experience in the 1970s proved, once the military deteriorates, it is not possible to restore it overnight.
Active-duty personnel grumble in private and to friends about lengthy deployments that strain family relations and "peacekeeping" missions that are purposeless and often deprive them of training opportunities because of restrictions placed on air space by "host" nations.
It's not just pilots who are in danger. The Aug. 4 issue of Time magazine tells of empathetic drill sergeants who are making basic training easier. At Fort Leonard Wood, an attack drill was canceled when a "wet-bulb globe-temperature-index calculator" tested the air and the sergeants decided it was too hot to attack. "This is more like summer camp" than basic training, said one recruit. It doesn't sound like the Army basic training I endured in 1965.
The Carter administration brought on many of the problems now confronting the American military. Despite the buildup by the Reagan administration which resulted in the toppling of the Soviet Union, a bill introduced in the House in 1975 by the late Rep. Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.), and added to that year's defense appropriation bill, sowed the seeds for the dilemma now confronting the military. That amendment mandated the admission of women to the service academies. In the heated debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (which Mr. Stratton supported), the military was to be treated like any other institution.
But as former Secretary of the Navy James Webb wrote last January in The Weekly Standard: "By focusing the debate on 'simple equality' rather than the effect of injecting females into the already complicated and tension-enhancing environment of the operating military, Stratton and company managed to leave a much larger, more intangible and far more complex issue on the table. And there it has lain ever since."
That issue is performance, not gender. The recent crashes may be nothing more than unfortunate coincidences, but in an administration with no love for the military, it behooves Congress to be vigilant and to ask if better pay at the commercial airlines is the real reason so many experienced fliers are bailing out. I suspect it's something else.
c 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate