After cutbacks, U.S. forces would be hard-pressed to handle 2 conflicts

February 19, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- U.S. forces would have difficulty fulfilling their mission of being able to fight two regional wars at almost the same time, the chairman of a Pentagon panel on military readiness said yesterday.

The chairman, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, a retired Army chief of staff, blamed downsizing, spending restraints and strategy changes for the difficulties facing the armed services. He presented a report from the government Task Force on Readiness, which warned that without "preventive or corrective" action, there could be "serious readiness degradations."

Military readiness is the Pentagon's top priority. Given lower troop levels and higher reliance on technology, defense planners have decided that the readiness of forces to respond rapidly around the globe is the most important measure of the effectiveness of the U.S. military.

In this year's defense budget, the operations and maintenance section -- the key funding source for improved readiness -- was the only major area of Pentagon spending to be significantly increased. It rose 5.9 percent, to $92.9 billion. Readiness includes having enough personnel available to fight, having equipment in working order, and having the means to move rapidly by land, sea or air.

General Meyer was asked whether U.S. forces could meet the two-war standard laid down in the Pentagon's bottom-up review. The review last year established force levels for the post-Cold War era, based on the ability to fight almost simultaneous regional conflicts.

"We know of several areas we have looked at that would make it difficult for the U.S. to do that at this time," he replied, citing lack of airlift capacity as one problem.

The task force found other problems, including:

* The increasing Army practice of assigning troops to nonmilitary duties, such as running cinemas and gyms on cash-strapped bases. This creates "mismatches" between job requirements and soldier skills.

* The operation of Navy bases for which funding has been removed, which creates funding shortfalls in other areas.

* A spare-parts shortage for Air Force planes, due to the rapid drawdown in funding, which kept many planes grounded or inadequately maintained. General Meyer noted that the military plane carrying Defense Secretary William J. Perry home from Europe this month suffered an engine failure.

* Lengthy sea deployment of Marines, preventing some training.

The task force blamed "turbulence," created by the changing size and role of the military, for the problems.

"Until this change-related turbulence declines, units in the field will inevitably be subject to some degraded readiness," said the task force report. "Turbulence is the No. 1 enemy of cohesiveness in units and concomitant readiness."

The panel said that current military readiness was "acceptable" but that the Pentagon should "take careful notice" of early signs of readiness problems. The goal, the panel said, is to prevent the return of the "hollowness" of U.S. forces in the 1970s, when the size of the U.S. military exaggerated the power of the punch it could deliver.

It expressed concern about joint readiness, the ability of the military services to launch a combined operation. The panel said that there was no way to measure how ready the services were for joint action and that a way should be devised.

General Meyer proposed a joint-force war game, involving live field exercises and computer simulations, to establish future force levels on the lines of "Operation Nifty Nugget," a war game used in the late 1970s to set the structure of the military for the 1980s and early 1990s.

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