WASHINGTON -- As the Pentagon mobilizes scores of military reserve and National Guard units across the country for Operation Desert Shield, an Army Reserve helicopter battalion at Fort Meade is not likely to be called, even if war breaks out and reinforcements are needed.
According to congressional investigators and Army reservists, the Maryland-based 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, hasn't trained for a specific wartime mission and doesn't even know where it fits into Army contingency plans for the Persian Gulf, Europe, Latin America or any other potential hot spot.
The unit's 12 CH-47C Chinook helicopters break down constantly, devour spare parts and never function well enough to become "fully mission capable" -- an Army requirement that all systems work properly at least 65 percent of the time, the General Accounting Office said in a recent report.
The fleet has been able to perform its missions only 6 percent to 61 percent of the time, a poor state of readiness that stems mainly "from a significant backlog of unscheduled and scheduled maintenance," the GAO said.
The Chinooks were not inspected when they were delivered to the unit two years ago and have been plagued ever since with problems ranging from severe structural corrosion to debris-damaged engines, the GAO said. "The nature of the problems indicates that the deficiencies probably existed at the time of transfer," it added.
"If I were a young reservist, I would say, 'What am I doing here? Either I'm going to transfer to a unit that knows what it's doing or call it quits,' " said Representative James Bilbray, D-Nev., a member of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee who ordered the GAO investigation last fall.
A Defense Department spokesman said it would be unlikely the unit would be called into action because it is unfit for combat.
An Army Reserve officer who has left the unit said he found it difficult to comprehend how the battalion's flying activities -- for example, moving a communications trailer from the roof of the Pentagon to the parking lot last year -- might be construed as "combat training."
"These are dirt missions, or what I call 'ash and trash' missions, that have nothing to do with real training," said the officer. He and others familiar with the unit, which has an authorized strength of 164, said the battalion has never participated in a major combat maneuver in the United States or overseas.
Lt. Col. Frank Glasgow, executive officer of the 31st Aviation Group,which commands the battalion in peacetime, said the reservists have received some "tactical training" at U.S. and Canadian military bases to help sharpen skills needed in a war.
But he acknowledged that most of the GAO findings were accurate. "The battalion still doesn't know its specific mission guidance" that would indicate what specific combat training exercises it should be doing, Colonel Glasgow said.
"All the shortcomings are things out of our control," he said.
As part of an Army modernization program, all the helicopters will be overhauled and converted to improved CH-47D models by August 1993, the GAO said.
Although the GAO examined only this battalion in detail, investigators said its woes are not isolated among reserve aviation units, even though the $2.4 trillion military buildup in the last decade was expected to improve the battle-ready status of all U.S. forces, including the reserves.
The Army took deliberate steps to improve the allocation of helicopters, communications gear and other equipment so that reserve units deployed in the early stages of a war would have the most modern armaments at hand. Congress and the Pentagon, meanwhile, tried to cut defense costs by reducing the size of active-duty forces and shifting more critical missions -- and money -- to the reserves as part of a "total force" policy adopted in 1973.
Now that the Pentagon has mobilized, for the first time since the Vietnam War, a large force of part-time soldiers, sailors and air personnel for a military crisis, Mr. Bilbray and other lawmakers who advocated the reserve deployments said the total force policy and the readiness of reserve forces demand closer scrutiny.
So far, roughly 28,000 reservists have been activated, about two-thirds from the Army, and the Pentagon said Thursday that total call-ups are now likely to be well below the 50,000 authorized by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney Aug. 23.
Mr. Cheney has touched off debate over the role of the reserves by limiting the Army call-up to support units such as those skilled in cargo handling, water purification, police work and medicine, not the combat units that would join regular fighting forces on the front lines.
Reserve combat forces probably would not be mobilized unless active forces became enmeshed in an all-out war and needed reinforcement, defense officials said.