Who could have predicted the first major disagreement of the post-convention presidential campaign would be a fight over those who fight? Yet that's what has happened, ever since Gov. George W. Bush recently described U.S. armed forces as "a military in decline."
Replied Vice President Al Gore: "Our military is the strongest and the best in the entire world." They can't both be right.
Or can they? Yes, the U.S. military stands head and shoulders above any other armed force, and we should take great pride in the dedication and professionalism of our soldiers.
But that doesn't mean our troops are prepared to fulfill the national security requirements of the world's lone superpower. U.S. military policy states the United States must be able to fight two regional wars almost at the same time.
Yet top-ranked officials in three of the four branches say it can't be done. Indeed, former NATO Commander Gen. George Joulwan (in an assessment shared by retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni) recently told FOX News that the United States would find it very difficult to fight another Desert Storm today.
Why? Because outdated and overused equipment, frequent deployments and recruitment problems have damaged the modern and ready military inherited by the Clinton administration in 1993.
Over seven years of mismanagement have resulted in a tired and run- down force. Consider the equipment problems plaguing today's force. Many weapons systems are aging faster than they're being replaced, when they're replaced at all.
"One of the most serious issues the Army faces is aging equipment," according to Gen. John Coburn, Commander, U.S. Army Materiel Command. Army officials have no plans to replace its aging Apache helicopters. They'll have to coax more life out of the current crop, which will reach an average age of 21 years over the next decade. The same holds true for its tanks and other fighting vehicles.
The Air Force is no better off. According to Jacques Gansler, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, the average age of today's Air Force fighters is about 20 years, even though they "were designed for a 15-year life." This creates a vicious cycle: Older planes require more maintenance and more spare parts, which the Air Force doesn't have.
Department of Defense spokesman Kenneth Bacon recently told reporters the Air Force is being forced to "cannibalize" good aircraft to get the needed parts.
The Clinton administration has also neglected research and development, a crucial area for any cutting-edge fighting force. The research and development budget has been scaled back more than 23 percent since the late 1980s.
At this pace, R&D will have dropped an additional 9 percent by 2005, for a total drop of almost one-third since 1987. This has resulted in a military technologically similar to the force we fielded a decade ago.
Worse, America's military is being used more often now than during the Cold War, despite being about 40 percent smaller. The pace of deployments has increased sixteenfold since 1991.
By 1999, the Clinton administration had deployed forces 48 times on peacekeeping and combat missions. Between 1945 and 1990, the military was deployed overseas 50 times. Since 1990, it's been deployed 60 times.
Of course, more operations mean longer deployments, which has led to personnel problems. The Army and the Air Force fell short of their 1999 recruiting goals by 6,300 and 1,700 recruits, respectively. The Navy met its 1999 goals, but only after changing its standards to make up for the nearly 7,000 sailors it fell short of in 1998.
It has become difficult for the military to keep the people it has. In 1999, for example, the Air Force missed its retention goals in all enlisted categories, losing 5,000 enlistees.
Even the Marines, who usually attract prospective recruits with ease, are beginning to have retention problems. Throughout the first part of 2000, they lost people at a rate 10 percent higher than expected.
This should surprise no one, since the Marines have been falling about $1.5 billion short in modernization funds every year. Their air fleet, for example, is getting very long in the tooth. Recently, the Marines had to ground 413 planes-a clear sign of readiness troubles.
Nearly a decade after the Cold War ended, the U.S. military is in a situation like the one it found itself in 1980, with dips in funding, morale and readiness.
America's military prowess can be restored. But that requires a willingness to admit there's a problem. As long as Gore's cheerful assessment goes unchecked, that won't happen.
Jack Spencer is a policy analyst in defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the New York Post.
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