Strategy: With the Cold War over and Costs to Maintain Our Forces Rising, Can the Military Be Reshaped?

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The ongoing debate about military readiness is only half the picture, according to analysts.

Michael Vickers, a defense policy analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a security policy think tank in Washington, goes further, calling the readiness debate a "red herring."

"The bigger issue is really how wise the current defense strategy is," he said.

Leaders at the White House, Pentagon and in Congress have wasted a decade thinking about but not acting on the military's needs for the future, he said.

Or as some have put it, the question is not whether the military is ready. The question is: Ready for what?

When the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many in government saw the opportunity for a "peace dividend," a budget savings from diverting money from the defense budget to other domestic uses.

Troops came home from Europe, and military bases, including Jacksonville's Cecil Field Naval Air Station, were closed. At the same time, the number of people serving in uniform dropped.

Those cuts in the military's budget occurred as spending dropped from about $400 billion at the end of the 1980s to a low of about $270 billion in 1998.

But the existing Army, Navy and Air Force units and equipment costs more to maintain than the federal budget currently spends on the military.

And a Congressional Budget Office report released in September found that the budget needed to sustain the military in its existing force required $340 billion, or $50 billion more than currently.

Since neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore have proposed raising military spending enough to remedy the existing shortfalls, both candidates face the likelihood that they will have to answer this question by restructuring today's forces.

The next president can either increase spending or further restructure the military through such measures as the appointment of another base closing commission and curtailing the procurement of new weapons systems.

Such a restructuring would bring with it uncertainties for Jacksonville.

The shuttering of Cecil Field Naval Air Station, a move that cost the region's economy hundreds of millions of dollars, resulted from the last round of base closings.

One proposed way to "re-size" the military, mentioned in several studies, would be to eliminate three out of the 12 Navy aircraft carriers.

Such a cut would not be easy to make, and it doesn't hold significant risk for Jacksonville's Navy bases, said retired Adm. Michael Kalleres, who lives in Jacksonville.

It would require dramatically reducing U.S. defense commitments overseas -- a decision to do much less in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf or the Pacific.

And even if such a cutback could be agreed to, said Kalleres, Jacksonville's bases still have natural advantages -- ranging from good weather to a proximity to deep water -- that tip the balance toward keeping them open.

As a result, it's more efficient to train Navy aviators and sailors in Northeast Florida than many other bases in the country, Kalleres said.

Still, a time ahead of much uncertainty looms, and while neither Bush nor Gore have offered a comprehensive defense plan, some clues to each man's approach can be found.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Bush has been willing to offer bolder proposals than Gore about the tough road ahead.

"Our military is still organized more for Cold War threats than for the challenges of a new century," Bush told an audience in a prominent speech on defense policy delivered at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., more than a year ago. "There is almost no relationship between our budget priorities and a strategic vision. The last seven years have been wasted in inertia and idle talk."

Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, have suggested repeatedly that America's military is overextended. …