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MORE BANG AND MORE BUCKS

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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ALL PARTIES, FROM THE PRESIDENT TO THE new speaker of the House to the Joint Chiefs of staff, now agree that America's armed forces are underfunded. There remains disagreement only on the size of the shortfall. When questioned in January by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chiefs stated that the increase the president is asking for is insufficient, and they're right. If we do not fundamentally rethink the sums we are prepared to devote to our military forces, we will soon be placing America's security in danger.


Testifying before the Armed Services Committee back in September, the chiefs and others revealed serious problems in the areas of readiness, modernization, personnel, and infrastructure. The military's readiness to fight, now and in the future, is in jeopardy; and its ability to attract and retain first-class people is dropping alarmingly, as the quality of life of servicemen and women declines and the facilities needed to support their work deteriorate.


As of September, the committee was told, most units in "Forces Command" -- the Army's "911" force, which must be ready to go at a moment's notice -- were at the lowest level of readiness consistent with their missions. The 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airmobile, the 3rd Infantry, and the 1st Cavalry Divisions, among others -- the units we have called on to respond to Saddam's threats and to enforce the peace in Bosnia -- fall into this group. Army chief of staff Dennis Reimer testified that if readiness is not addressed quickly, "we run the risk of returning to the hollow Army, or else we run the risk of not being able to execute the National Military Strategy."


Serious readiness problems also beset the other services. Admiral Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, stated that the readiness of non-deployed ships and aircraft "has continued to erode this year." The carriers and planes that sail into danger are still able to fight, he said, but those that would have to support them or deal with unforeseen problems might not be ready to do so. The readiness of the Navy's non-deployed carrier air wings, for instance, was "the lowest it's been in a decade." In his January 5 testimony, Johnson added that the USS Enterprise had attained full operational readiness only days before it deployed to the Middle East -- where it would be the base for some of the December strikes against Iraq. General Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, reported a 14 percent degradation in the readiness of the Air Force's major operational units since 1996. In one command the decline was a precipitous 50 percent.


Even in the Marine Corps, which has kept its warfighting readiness high, there are problems. General Charles Krulak, the commandant of the corps, told an anecdote about a Marine private deployed in Kuwait. A visitor asked the young man what he would like most to have just then, expecting


the Marine was going to say "I'd like a cot, or a hot meal, or a shower." But not this Marine. Three days before Christmas, a half a world away from his loved ones, in the sand and foxholes with his buddies, he had only this one request: "I could use some more ammunition. I could use some more ammunition."


Such relatively high readiness as the Marines have maintained has come at a hideous cost to their future capabilities. The Marines have had to shift funds from modernization to pay for current needs, with the result that their equipment is aging and breaking. Krulak told the committee, "I am afraid that we will merely scrape off the skin cancer of near-term readiness and allow our long-term readiness cancer to metastasize." The problem, he said, is inadequate funding for modernization.


Admiral Johnson heartily seconded these comments. The Navy, he noted, has had to divert funds from modernization to training and spare parts. Investment in modernization has declined by more than half since 1990, he reported, adding, "When you defer upgrades, it means you're dealing with older equipment, which requires more maintenance, which costs more, which puts more work burden on the sailors, which increases the risk. It's a predictable but vicious cycle." Johnson concluded, "We can't sustain the Navy with the budget that we have."


And the problems do not end there. Scrounging to maintain readiness, the armed forces have also had to starve quality of life and infrastructure programs on military posts, at a cost of serious attrition of critical talented personnel who are unwilling to work at rundown bases and in dilapidated equipment for far less money than they could be earning in the private sector.