The Blog


11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The problem of retaining quality people is particularly noticeable in the Air Force. Pilots are being wooed by commercial airlines that offer better pay, health care, and retirement plans and are leaving the Air Force at an increasing rate. In January, General Ryan warned that the Air Force might well come up 850 pilots short this year and 2,000 pilots short by 2002, which is 15 percent of the number needed to sustain operations. He predicted a "readiness crisis" if the trends are not reversed "through substantial and sustained" increases in funding.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR AMERICA'S security? Could the armed forces execute the Pentagon's National Military Strategy, fighting two regional wars nearly simultaneously while conducting minor operations as well? The chiefs' testimony makes clear that they probably still could, but at a price of heightened danger. General Shelton told the committee that America would win both conflicts, but doing so would take longer and cost us more casualties than we would face if the armed forces were properly maintained.

General Ryan noted that the Air Force's readiness is uneven, with a marked shortfall in airlift capability. This has been obvious to many for a long time, and it is worrisome, for without adequate airlift, none of the services can hope to handle two simultaneous conflicts.

General Reimer stressed the same point. If the United States were already at war in one theater and a second conflict broke out, he said, not only would the Army Reserve and National Guard have to be fully mobilized, but some 70,000 soldiers would have to pull out of the first war and travel, presumably several thousand miles, to plunge right into the second. What if the first conflict dragged on? What if the airlift capacity were not available to make the move? Worse, General Reimer added that the Army would have to pull back any forces involved in peacekeeping missions like Bosnia and immediately ready them to enter the major conflict -- even though the skills required for peacekeeping are inadequate for warfighting. General Reimer's testimony calls seriously into question the Army's ability to execute the National Military Strategy with an acceptable margin of risk.

Senator Strom Thurmond cut to the chase in September. He asked whether the funding levels set by the Balanced Budget Agreement of 1997 "are sufficient to maintain military readiness in the near term and provide the necessary modernization" for the future. All of the chiefs responded with a flat "no." Asked how much more money they need, Reimer called for $ 5 billion a year, Johnson for $ 6 billion, Ryan for $ 5 billion, and Krulak for $ 1.5 billion -- all of them noting that additional funds were required above and beyond those increases to address the quality-of-life issues. In sum, the armed services, according to the chiefs, need at least $ 17.5 billion more a year simply to carry out current policies, bring readiness to an acceptable level, and begin to modernize. Much more is needed to improve the forces' ability to recruit and retain high-quality people.

But the chiefs were understating the problem. The sums they asked for would simply prevent further degradation of the armed forces' ability to function. The armed forces would still be too small; and modernization would cost far more than current budgets anticipate. In 1997, the National Defense Panel estimated that $ 5 billion to $ 10 billion more than was then planned would be required to fund the panel's modernization program. The defense budget, then, is some $ 27 billion too low. But even that figure may fall short.

In testimony a year ago before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the report of the National Defense Panel, former secretary of defense James Schlesinger warned, "You can't get there, that desired point in the 21st century, from here, given the apparent fiscal limits." He stated that with the present tempo of operations, another 1 percent of GDP -- say $ 70 billion -- would be necessary to maintain and adequately modernize the force. That would bring the defense budget to about $ 330 billion annually -- some $ 34 billion (or 9 percent) less than we spent on defense in 1989. Can it really be that the armed forces in this period of relative peace require 90 percent of what they needed to confront the Soviet Union?