Signs of Erosion in US Military Readiness Memo to Army Chief of Staff Warns That Long-Term Ability to Defend Is under Threat

Article excerpt

Flying daily patrols over the volatile Persian Gulf, pilots in Air Force Gen. Hal Hornburg's command are among the more than 250,000 American troops overseas as part of what the Pentagon calls "the tip of the spear."

The leading edge of United States global power, these land, sea, and air units are without peer. Yet General Hornburg is worried. Tight funds have left him scrambling for spare parts - items like jet engines. He's also short on personnel. As a result he says his air crews' combat readiness is "naggingly down."

"We're not in the dark days," says Hornburg, who oversees US air operations in the Middle East from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "But it's not as bright as I would like it to be."

As they confront threats from the Balkans to the Korean peninsula, commanders are voicing increasingly grave concerns over US combat preparedness. They warn of serious strains as defense spending shrinks for a 14th consecutive year amid post-cold-war manpower cuts and a grinding level of overseas commitments.

Just how dire the problem has become is unclear: The military's state of readiness can truly be tested only by a major conflict.

The issue was a key item of discussion Tuesday between President Clinton, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and top US commanders in Washington.

Some officers, as well as members of Congress, assert that wear and tear has put at risk the Pentagon's strategy of being able to fight and win two major wars at almost the same time in different regions of the world.

"We can no longer train and sustain the force, stop infrastructure degradation, and provide our soldiers the ... programs critical to long-term readiness," Gen. David Bramlett, commander of US-based Army forces, wrote in an Aug. 20 memo to the Army chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer.

"This threatens our ability to mobilize, deploy, fight and win," says the memo, a copy of which the Monitor obtained.

Others reject the notion that today's military is approaching the demoralized and equipment-short "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam era.

"We are certainly far closer to where we were at the time of Desert Storm than where we were in the late '70s and early '80s," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, an independent think tank in Washington. "But it is something that you have to watch very closely. There has been some slippage."

Adm. Joseph Lopez, commander of US and NATO forces in southern Europe, says his units are maintaining "the highest state of readiness" and have had no personnel shortages or spare-parts snafus. Yet he concedes the US is not building ships fast enough to replace those that are wearing out. Mr. Cohen acknowledges "signs of some erosion," but insists "the tip of the spear" is as sharp as ever.

While quantifying the depth of the problems is difficult, anecdotal evidence is mounting:

There's been a steep decline in Air Force planes in good enough shape to fly missions. In 1991, 83.4 percent of aircraft were "mission capable"; now only 74.6 percent are.

Air Force pilots, each of whom cost $6 million to train, are quitting in large numbers for better-paying civilian jobs. …