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
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
"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. …