Service Chiefs Urge Defense Spending

Wednesday, September 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military is fully prepared to carry out its war-fighting missions but the next president and Congress will have to increase spending to keep the troops ready, the nation's top military officer told the Senate Wednesday.

``We must find the resources necessary to modernize the force,'' said Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Shelton mentioned no specific figures and said the amount of additional defense spending would depend on the outcome of a planned Pentagon review next year of the nation's military strategy. He said some additional money could come from closing more military bases.

Shelton and other military chiefs spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on a topic that has become a major point of debate in the presidential campaign.

Opening the hearing, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the committee, said that although military reductions were begun under former President Bush, the Clinton administration had gone too far in cutting spending and shrinking the size of the force.

Warner said, however, that in measuring the war-fighting readiness of U.S. forces, ``The curve has bottomed out and started up.''

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, defended the administration's defense policies and said the Republican-controlled Congress was partly to blame for military weaknesses by forcing the Pentagon to buy weapons it did not want and refusing to close unneeded bases.

Shelton said that although troops are ready for their war-fighting missions, too much of the Pentagon budget is being diverted from long-term modernization accounts in order to fill gaps in near-term readiness.

``We are, collectively, robbing Peter to pay Paul,'' Shelton said.

When it comes to U.S. troops' combat readiness, the chiefs agree on at least three points:

—The armed forces are less ready than several years ago, but still capable of carrying out the Clinton administration's national security strategy of being able to fight two nearly simultaneous major wars.

—To meet the demands of peacekeeping, normal training and overseas deployments, the military needs more troops. It is unlikely, however, that any of the services is ready to lobby for specific increases.

—Defense spending increases of the past two years have met the military's most pressing needs; but the budget will have to go even higher for several years to pay for modernization and other improvements.

None of this is likely to come as a surprise to members of Congress, Republican or Democrat. Nor is it likely to settle the debate between presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush over whether the Clinton administration has overused and underfunded the military since 1993.

But Wednesday's testimony by the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps may sketch the outlines of a broader discussion that will take place once the election is over. That discussion will focus not so much on whether the military is ``ready,'' as on what it should be ready for.

Wesley Clark, the retired Army general who was NATO commander during the 1999 air war over Kosovo, has put it this way:

Should we keep our military at home to prepare for the next big war, staying out of faraway crises like Somalia's 1992 famine, Rwanda's 1994 genocide and ethnic slaughter in the Balkans? Or does the United States want to be a world leader by dealing with emerging international crises before major war is required?

``It's been more expensive and more demanding to help out abroad than just to stay at home, downsizing the force and preparing for future all-out war,'' Clark wrote earlier this month in an opinion column in The Washington Post. ``So the real issue is about national purpose and strategy, not about readiness.''

But for now, with the presidential campaign in high gear, the defense debate is largely limited to questions about readiness. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney can correctly claim that readiness has eroded during the Clinton years, and Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman can say they are ready to spend more on defense.

That leaves the service chiefs free to point out the spending gaps that need filling, while steering clear of partisan wrangling. They were called to testify Wednesday before the Senate and House armed services committees.

The Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was prepared to say he believes the Army is too small, considering the many demanding missions it is assigned. Yet he preferred not to get specific when it comes to numbers, aides said Tuesday. The Army currently is authorized to have 480,000 men and women on active duty, down from 495,000 four years ago and 590,000 when Clinton took office in 1993.

Shinseki believes the Army needs 30,000 to 40,000 more troops, according to aides who spoke on condition of anonymity. The debate over specific increases, however, is likely to wait until a new president takes office.


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