Cover Story

Ready...or not?

With more threats around the world than ever, the mighty U.S. military of the 1980s is long gone. Americans will remember past heroes this Memorial Day, but has their government forgotten about today's troops?

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

This Memorial Day, America will mourn its recent fallen warriors: two Army aviators, killed when their Apache helicopter crashed in Kosovo earlier this month. While the country remembers these and other heroes, the war for peace in Kosovo is resurrecting another misty memory for military leaders and analysts: the mighty, Reagan-era U.S. military that no longer exists.

After communism imploded in 1989, that crack Cold War force began, systematically, to be dismantled and carted off like rubble from the Berlin Wall. Washington slashed troop strength, mothballed hardware, and dynamited defense spending. Now, in Kosovo, what was supposed be a short-duration aerial spanking ("a few days," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opined in March) for Slobodan Milosevic has turned into a major theater air war. The resulting strain on U.S. military assets has experts reexamining the readiness of American forces-and finding it lacking.

"The down-sized, social-engineered force of today is not the same Reagan-era force that some armchair warriors imagine it to be," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a defense policy group. She added that the war in Kosovo is disclosing a U.S. force that may be outmatched by its own war doctrine: namely, that the Pentagon be prepared to fight two major regional conflicts at the same time.

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On April 30th, General Richard Hawley, who heads the Air Combat Command, told reporters that if a second crisis were to erupt elsewhere on the planet, the Air Force would be "hard-pressed" to participate at full strength: "There would be some compromises made." That followed his admission that JDAMs, a primary air-to-surface missile used in the Balkans, were in perilously short supply. The pinching of Pacific theater assets to support the Kosovo offensive and the recent presidential reveille for 33,000 reservists also have observers questioning whether the actual level of force readiness is closer to the "hooah!" pride of soldiers patrolling global hot-spots, or to data being brandished by the House Armed Services Committee and others.

According to committee members, the U.S. Army could field 18 divisions in 1992; now it can muster only 10. During the same period, fighter air wings were trimmed from 24 to 13. The Navy, which aspired to a 600-ship fleet during the Cold War, now sails with just over 300. The Army is $1.7 billion short of basic ammunition. The Marine Corps, America's 911 force, is $193 million shy.

Talk now about force readiness with military brass, analysts, and troops, and you hear a lot about overextension. After 14 years of real decline in defense spending, budgets are stretched. With troop strength cut nearly in half since 1990 (approximately the same force reduction made by the army of the Roman Empire during the first century), people are spread thin. And a sharp increase in the number of contingency, or rapid response, deployments is straining military families. Equipment is aging; recruiters face severe shortfalls; and service members "continue to exit despite the Pentagon's effort to turn off the downsizing spigot," says defense analyst Robert Maginnis, a retired Army Lt. Colonel who works for the Family Research Council. "The military can't stop the hemorrhage."

All this is occurring in a global political climate more volatile than the nuke-enabled U.S.-Soviet deadlock of the Cold War. Rogue nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are stockpiling military weapons and technology courtesy of Russia and China. Pakistani nukes irradiated the news last year. Chinese forces, after helping themselves to U.S. intelligence, are building missiles that threaten U.S. interests in Asia. (After NATO's embassy misfire in Belgrade, now they're angry, too.) And military volcanoes around the planet have continued to erupt with regularity: Kuwait. Somalia. Haiti. Macedonia. Rwanda and eastern Zaire. Bosnia. And now Kosovo.

American forces have responded to 33 such global contingencies this decade, more than three times as many as in the three previous decades combined. President Clinton has deployed U.S. troops more often in peacetime than any commander in chief since World War II. His zeal for doing so, say military leaders and analysts, diminishes the ability of American forces to respond to new threats against actual U.S. interests.

"What happens if China decides to fire more CSS-6 missiles at Taiwan as it did earlier this decade?" asks a retired Air Force colonel who requested that his name be withheld to protect his defense-related post-military job. "With the Pacific Fleet being diverted to the Indian Ocean to be within striking distance of Kosovo, I'd say we couldn't respond [appropriately]." A former operational intelligence officer whose most recent command included 3,000 people, the colonel believes regional brushfires are straining not only the military's hardware but also its heart.


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