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.

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?

Yes, it can, for conditions today are totally different from those that prevailed in 1989. We deterred the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons -- our own, at home and in Europe, and those of the British and French, as well. Nuclear weapons are expensive individually, but very cost-effective by comparison with conventional forces. During the Cold War, we maintained an Army of 18 divisions -- 8 more than today -- but it was never intended to defeat the Red Army by itself. In addition to the forces of our NATO allies, which were far larger then they are now, plans for a war with the Soviet Union anticipated the call-up of all reserves and National Guard forces and probably a full national mobilization -- after all, it would have been the Third World War. The Army was just the vanguard of the mobilized nation.

That situation no longer holds. For most contingencies we can imagine today, there will be no national mobilization and probably only a selective call-up of reserve and guard forces. The active-duty Army is not a vanguard anymore. Together with certain ready-reserve and guard units, it's all we have. There is no easy way to compare the cost of maintaining a vanguard force, tailored to a particular mission in a known area against a thoroughly studied enemy, with the cost of maintaining a force ready to go anywhere in the world at a moment's notice with no warning and little foreknowledge of who, why, and how it might be fighting.

The Air Force and the Navy face similar difficulties. Although they were more than vanguard forces during the Cold War, they too had the advantage of knowing who their enemy was, what he would try to do, and exactly how we planned to stop him. They also knew that, were they stationed off Soviet ports or called upon to bomb Soviet rear bases over an extended period, the nation would be mobilizing behind them and resources, reinforcements, and replacements would be provided to sustain the effort.

Today's task of maintaining carrier battle groups or fighter wings permanently ready in any one of several high-risk regions for an indefinite time without the benefit of a national mobilization is a totally different kind of challenge. The peace dividend has always been a myth, and a dangerous one: It is impossible to know in advance how much or little the armed forces' new mission will cost except by experience evaluated honestly. So far, experience shows that it costs more than we are currently planning to pay.

Finally, in 1989, we were not proposing, as we are now, to transform the armed forces in keeping with the new high-tech revolution in military affairs. If, within the next decade or so, plans are not well along to replace all of the major weapons systems of all of the services with entirely new systems appropriate to the new nature of war, America's danger will be very great indeed. Smart munitions in the hands of our foes will prevent us from even landing forces on, flying planes over, or sailing ships near the theaters where we need to intervene. Warfare may well move too rapidly for us to take several days to put forces on the ground and several months to build up an offensive capability, as we did in the Gulf. We may be unable to defend our allies and pursue our interests. Unless a missile-defense system is deployed in short order, moreover, we may find the United States itself under direct attack. This is not scaremongering. This is reality, and if we do not face it soon, more squarely than anyone seems to be doing today, we place our security and the security of our children in peril.

Frederick W. Kagan is assistant professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Army, or the Defense Department.

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