Pentagon Divulges Military Readiness

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — When George W. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney say the Clinton administration has squandered the strong military it inherited from Bush's father, they point to a problem that independent observers agree is real: a mismatch between defense resources and demands placed on U.S. forces.

On the other hand, few could challenge — and Bush and Cheney do not — Al Gore's assertion that today's American military is the strongest in the world.

It's also true that measures of military capability are really political judgments: Under what circumstances should military force be used? What are the odds that U.S. security interests will be challenged, and by whom? To what extent does the peacetime presence of U.S. troops abroad deter conflict? How willing are U.S. allies to fight alongside American forces, and to share burdens like peacekeeping?

The U.S. military, in power and reach, is so superior to any other on Earth that comparisons really miss the point. The United States has set for itself a unique military role — not of global policeman but of global power. It is the only military that keeps substantial numbers of troops and ships on duty around the world.

And therein lies the largely unasked question in the current debate over military readiness: Ready for what?

Ready to conduct an increasing number of open-ended peacekeeping operations, beyond the current commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo? Probably not, but neither Bush nor Gore is likely to allow that, anyway.

Ready to keep up their peacekeeping in the Balkans? Yes, although the Pentagon states openly that if war broke out elsewhere, the forces (mainly Army) in Bosnia and Kosovo would have to pull out immediately.

Ready to continue patrolling the skies over southern and northern Iraq, as the Air Force, Navy and Marines have been doing since shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War? Apparently yes, although that mission has been a major strain.

The Bush administration's Gulf War succeeded in expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but it left Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad, and the Clinton administration has sought to keep a lid on his military.

Cheney said Thursday that a new Bush administration would press U.S. allies in Europe to share a bigger portion of the peackeeping load in the Balkans, so that the United States could pull out some of its troops. At present there are 6,200 U.S. troops in Kosovo, or about one-seventh of the total peacekeeping force. And in Bosnia the United States has a slightly higher proportion: 4,600 of the total 22,000.

Cheney's comments sparked a sharp response from the Gore campaign, where a spokeswoman, Kym Spell, said Bush ``clearly doesn't understand what is going on in the world.'' She said U.S. forces comprised a low percentage of the peacekeeping forces in both Kosovo and Bosnia, and that U.S. allies pay for 90 percent of the peacekeeping effort.

On paper, the Defense Department's own standard is to be prepared to fight two ``major theater wars'' nearly simultaneously. There is no precise definition of either ``major theater war'' or ``nearly simultaneously,'' but the general idea is to be able to fight and win wars against, say, Iraq and North Korea.

The Pentagon told Congress Thursday in its quarterly report on readiness that most combat forces are ready to execute their wartime missions, although it expressed concern about shortfalls in training and certain personnel skills as well as deficiencies in equipment such as anti-aircraft radar jammers.

Thursday's report said that in today's context, in which U.S. troops are on duty in the Balkans and in the Persian Gulf, the ``risk factors'' for responding to the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula would be ``moderate.'' It judged the risk for responding to a second war, theoretically in the Persian Gulf, as ``high.''

Those risks are not meant to suggest the United States would not prevail in either of the two wars, but rather that the potential for American casualties would be greater.

That's different than being able to fight a world war of the kind feared during the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall fell and democracy swept through central and eastern Europe in 1989-90, the Bush administration and Congress decided to reduce U.S. forces, cut budgets and close bases.

Cheney and Bush now say the Clinton administration went too far in cutting back on the military.

Richard E. Hawley, recently retired as commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, blames the Clinton administration for taking a ``procurement holiday,'' meaning it slowed down the purchasing of new weaponry to the point that wear and tear have made it increasingly expensive to operate.

That, in turn, has forced the military to use money that would otherwise buy new equipment to maintain the old.

As it happens, the Pentagon is gearing up for what has become a quadrennial review of the military, to determine how to balance military requirements with national security strategy. The last such review, in 1997, was headed by Cohen, a Republican. The next one will start early next year when a new administration takes office.