This Is No Time to Monkey with Readiness

Article excerpt

It was the non sequitur of the week. Replying to charges that deferred reset of equipment lost and broken in Iraq has dangerously degraded military readiness, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld objected that the readiness shortfalls in question were overstated. As one example, he noted, "Artillery units now have different missions that don't require artillery, but some of the units are still graded on how prepared they are to do artillery missions."

His comment reminded me of the morning in Vietnam on which my howitzer battery, deployed deep in the bush, discovered that heavy firing had broken two of our telescopic aiming devices. As quickly as we could, we removed them and dispatched them by helicopter for replacement.

When the chopper returned, instead of two usable sights, it brought back two maintenance "shoe tags," the Army's equivalent of promissory notes. It was another day before we finally managed to convince our support unit that howitzers couldn't be aimed with shoe tags.

In the effort to sustain prolonged counterinsurgency commitments that neither political nor military leaders anticipated, the Army has been compelled to "re-role" units such as artillery whose intended combat functions currently aren't needed but whose manpower desperately is. In Iraq today, more artillerymen are driving trucks and conducting foot patrols than are manning howitzers.

Mr. Rumsfeld is quite right that, for those tasks, the readiness of the units performing them isn't particularly affected by the condition of their normal mission-related weapons and equipment. But judging readiness that way is the nonsensical political equivalent of replacing gun sights with shoe tags. Taken to its logical extreme, airmen would be judged ready for war whether or not they had aircraft to fly, sailors whether or not they had vessels to sail, and soldiers whether or not they had vehicles to drive.

Of course, if Mr. Rumsfeld can guarantee that no such tasks will be required of America's armed forces for the next few decades, and that no enemy recognizing our unreadiness to perform them will decide to exploit it, the issue is moot. Regrettably, on past evidence, his prescience in that connection doesn't inspire confidence.

Ever since the Army and its sister services during the Clinton administration began engaging in prolonged peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions-missions ironically criticized by then-candidate George W. Bush and his advisers, including Mr. Rumsfeld, as debilitating to readiness-they've confronted a dilemma.

Such operations, like today's in Iraq, are manpower but not firepower intensive, exactly the opposite of the pattern America's armed forces preferentially employ in conventional combat. …