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.
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.
"Most wouldn't tell you," he said, "but American forces are growing tired of the world police role. The potential for soldiers to become engaged in armed conflict is escalating out of control. Those serving are looking at a rising potential to enter these conflicts and not make it home. When that happens, a critical element of readiness is affected-the willingness of the 'doers' to go do it."
It's not only the doers who are affected, but also those who are considering doing it. According to a 1996 Department of Defense survey of the attitudes of young people toward military service, some feel the military is being used to further the interests of national leaders rather than those of the nation. Many say specifically that they do not want to serve as peacekeepers in foreign countries. "They object to being put in jeopardy to fight someone else's battles," the defense department report said.
Both the Army and the Navy failed to meet recruiting quotas for fiscal year 1998, according to defense department officials. For the first six months of fiscal year 1999, the Air Force and the Army have fallen short-the Army by 5,400 recruits. But recruitment is just one piece of the personnel readiness puzzle.
Fewer first-termers are reenlisting-and a big chunk of those don't even make it to the end of their first hitch. Of 203,000 personnel who entered active service in 1993, more than a third did not complete their initial service obligation, according to a September 1998 report by the government's General Accounting Office.
Service members who once planned to make the military a career also are choosing early departure. Among myriad chronic complaints: low pay (14 percent lower on average than comparable civilian jobs), shrinking benefits, increased family separation imposed by contingency operations, and poor potential for advancement. "I had plans to climb the chain and maybe stay in," says Tom Phillips, a former Army electronics technician who left the service last November. "Every time I tried to go up for promotion, there weren't enough slots. After three times, I just gave up on it and decided to go somewhere where I'm appreciated." Mr. Phillips now works as an electronics technician at Samsung in Austin, Texas. He earns twice what he did in the Army.
Pilots, in particular, are exiting the services en masse, an especially disturbing trend given the U.S. reliance on air power. According to the defense department, the Air Force is currently more than 800 pilots short. That figure is expected to double by the year 2000. Flyers have long taken issue with the pay gap between military and civilian pilots, and that hasn't changed. But today's exiting military pilots are also concerned about not getting enough flying time to become proficient in their combat aircraft. "We do not have the training assets to do our job," a Norfolk-based F-14 Tomcat commander told The Wall Street Journal in May. He described his squadron as a hazard to Navy operations.
At Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, pilots flying the AV-8 Harrier, a hover-capable, fixed-wing attack jet, averaged 242 flight hours in 1992, according to Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), vice chairman of the military readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. In 1998, that total dropped to 105, barely enough to maintain official flight status.
Besides scant training time, Mr. Jones said pilots are also concerned about aging aircraft and resultant maintenance problems. Across all service branches, aircraft are reaching or exceeding the outer limits of life expectancy. For example, the average age of the H-53 Super Stallion, a workhorse helicopter used by the both the Navy and Marine Corps, is 28 years-eight years older than its projected service life. And CH-46 Sea Knights, also used by both seagoing services, are flirting with their service life span of 30 years. But according to Major Ken White, a spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps, the Sea Knight's replacement aircraft won't be ready for delivery until 2014.
Mr. White says force modernization delays also are eroding ground readiness. Primary Marine Corps weapons and transport vehicles, like the Howitzer cannon,
five-ton truck, and Hum-Vee, all are within three to four years of their life expectancy, Mr. White said. And the Corps' amphibious assault vehicles (similar to those shown storming the Normandy beachhead in the movie Saving Private Ryan), already seven years past their 20-year service limit, won't see full retirement until they're 39 years old.
"That's like expecting to drive your car 100,000 miles and having to drive it 200,000," said Mr. White. "Routine maintenance will work for awhile, but pretty soon major stuff starts to go wrong. Then the maintenance cost becomes exorbitant. And when you're talking about spare parts for military equipment, you're not talking about an occasional bolt. You're talking about transmissions and engines. For an M-1 tank, an engine alone costs millions of dollars."
To get those millions, service commanders increasingly rob Peter to pay Paul. To finance maintenance and repairs, they must often raid modernization and training budgets, thus effectively mortgaging tomorrow to pay for today.
Some conservative lawmakers, Mr. Jones for example, lay blame for the military's fiscal misery at Bill Clinton's feet. But defense cuts and force reduction initiatives, sparked when the Iron Curtain crashed to earth, predate his presidency. Still, Mr. Clinton has presided over an ever worsening defense picture. During his eight-year watch, he's continued to cut military spending with one hand while increasing operational demands with the other. Last September, after years of dutifully "doing more with less," the fed-up Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress the military needs a $27.5 billion increase in next year's defense budget to restore the U.S. military to full readiness. That figure dwarfed the president's proposed $1 billion hike.
Other efforts to rescue the U.S. military include preventive and stopgap flares fired from Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, lawmakers trumped President Clinton's proposed $5.5 billion emergency defense appropriation with a $13.1 billion shot in the military's arm. And since 1997, Congress has added billions of dollars to presidential budget requests for critical line items like depot maintenance, spare parts, training, and recruiting. In addition, legislators enacted measures to prevent the administration from plundering key readiness accounts to finance unbudgeted peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
Besides diverting earmarked funds, such operations create a vacuum effect on readiness, said Air Force General Hawley. While the most experienced and well-equipped forces are sent to the front, there is "a significant decline in the mission capability rate of those that remain in the states," said Mr. Hawley, speaking last month about Kosovo. "The units remaining in the states will be undermanned (and) underexperienced.... You'll see those effects and you'll see them very quickly."
Those effects, faced by any country waging war, are multiplied when tactical operations are continued over long periods and on multiple fronts. For eight years, Air Force patrols have bored holes in the sky over Iraq in a sometimes successful effort to keep Saddam's saber sheathed. In Bosnia, 6,000 U.S. soldiers enforcing peace are entering their fourth year of Balkan consignment. And 38,000 soldiers continue to face down the North Koreans. Analysts say this "Pax Americana" is taking its toll.
"We are in a situation now where, because of readiness problems caused in large part by these continuous deployments, we are not prepared to defend the interests of our own nation," said Congressman Jones: "We cannot continue to police the world."