Finally, there is reason to believe that one of the most important challenges likely to confront the next president actually will become a focus for the 2000 elections: the present and future readiness of the U.S. military to fight the nation's wars.
In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, Republican nominee George W. Bush put the issue squarely in the spotlight when he declared, "If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report: `Not ready for duty, sir.'"
The next day, the Clinton Pentagon responded with interviews by its highly political press spokesman, Ken Bacon, and a statement by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, asserting that all of the Army's divisions are good to go. Of course, they could not deny that the two divisions of which Bush spoke -- the 1st Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division -- had been declared unready for war last fall because of the detachment of a brigade from each to peacekeeping duties in the Balkans. But that was then, reporters were told, and this is now. According to the Washington Times, Shelton declared that "the Army had `jumped right on top of that' and brought [both divisions] back to combat readiness."
The problem for the Clinton/Gore administration is that, whatever the status of any given unit at any point in time, the overall trend for the armed forces is bad -- and getting worse. This fact is so palpable that the Joint Chiefs chairman was compelled to acknowledge it, even as he carried out his assignment of rebutting Bush's specific point. As the Times reported, Shelton felt compelled to add, "That doesn't mean that everything is the way we would all like to have it." There are "some readiness shortfalls" that will not be fixed quickly. "Once readiness starts down, you don't just turn it around overnight."
To be sure, this is not the first time the general has warned about these "readiness shortfalls." In September 1998, he used an aeronautical metaphor to describe the situation the armed forces faced: "In my view, we have `nosed over' and our readiness is descending. I believe that with the support of the administration and Congress, we should apply corrective action now. We must `pull back on the stick' and begin to climb before we find ourselves in a nosedive that might cause irreparable damage to this great force we have created, a nosedive that will take years to pull out of."
Interestingly, just a month before, Undersecretary of Defense Jacques Gansler had declared that the military not only had already entered such a "nosedive," but he opined that it was an irrecoverable one: "We are trapped in a `death spiral.' The requirement to maintain our aging equipment is costing us more each year -- in repair costs, downtime and maintenance tempo. But we must keep this equipment in repair to maintain readiness. It drains our resources -- resources we should be applying to modernization of the traditional systems and development and deployment of the new systems. So, we stretch out our replacement schedules to ridiculous lengths and reduce the quantities of the new equipment we purchase, raising their costs and still further delaying modernization."
In other words, the truth of the matter is far worse than Bush suggested. Not only is today's military facing severe shortfalls that are impinging upon its combat-readiness, but the fact that the armed services are obliged constantly to rob Peter (tomorrow's forces) to pay Paul (allowing today's barely to make do) means that future defense capabilities may be seriously inadequate. History suggests that the consequence of such a practice is a vacuum of power that hostile nations often feel invited to fill.
The magnitude of this double whammy is staggering. According to the most rigorous independent analysis done to date concerning the deplorable condition of the U.S. military -- a study titled "Averting the Defense Train Wreck in the New Millennium" published last year by Daniel Goure and Jeffrey Ranney -- "A substantial defense strategy-resources mismatch . …