Defense cutbacks could strain troops who remain

May 19, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent nTC

NORFOLK, VA — NORFOLK, Va. -- Straining under Pentagon cutbacks, U.S. military commanders are trying desperately to spare their troops unbearably long family separations as they respond to expanding global crises.

The Defense Department is determined not to repeat the experience of the last major defense drawdown, in the late 1970s. That era produced what the Pentagon calls "a hollow force" -- understaffed, poorly equipped and demoralized.

"We didn't have enough people to do the job, and as we tried to do the job, we ran them into the ground," said Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the new chief of naval operations. "We got into a really terrible situation. No. 1 of my priorities is not to let that happen again."

Here at Atlantic Fleet headquarters, officers are trying to maintain readiness while keeping sailors from being at sea too long. They are stationing ships abroad and flying crews out to them to reduce transit time; making more use of a reserve aircraft carrier; stretching intervals between maintenance so more ships are available; and asking allied navies to do more.

"We have a great Navy," Admiral Boorda said in his first message to the 481,971 sailors he commands. "But as it gets smaller, it simply cannot get in an operation mode where deployments are too long."

Admiral Boorda, a former enlisted man whose rise is attributed in part to his "people background," said, "I think six-month operations are the edge of the envelope."

The length of time that service members are separated from their families is a key factor in whether to re-enlist. Fewer re-enlistmentscan hurt morale and readiness.

A Navy analysis of the years 1979 to 1988 found that

deployments of eight months caused an additional 12.5 percent of first-term recruits not to re-enlist. Most of the additional dropouts were married.

As forces shrink, officers are especially loath to lose the best troops. "Right now, we are keeping them," said Capt. Skip E. Wright, deputy director for plans and operations at Atlantic Fleet headquarters here. "But who can say about tomorrow?"

Can the fleet handle its growing commitments, including crises inthe Adriatic, the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf?

"The answer is, What are our unscheduled commitments, the unplanned-for commitments with which we have to deal?" said Capt. Robert D. Moser, deputy director of operations.

"If nobody changes the commitments . . . we can do it. But there is no flexibility. If any one of them pop, then all of a sudden something's going to have to give, and it's going to be [home port] time."

Outside the briefing room here, the Navy piers are humming as ships of the USS George Washington joint task force prepare to sail tomorrow to the Mediterranean for six months, the peacetime limit for Navy sea service.

Aboard the nuclear attack submarine USS Hyman G. Rickover, Yeoman 1st Class Timothy Baisley, 26, knows that before he returns in six months, his wife, Karen, will have celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary alone, and he will have missed his daughter Holly's third birthday. Karen Baisley, 23, will not be dockside with Holly and Conner, their 1-year-old son, to wave her husband off for the longest deployment of his career.

"The first time I went out and watched the boat leave, I told myself I would not do that again," she said. "It was just too upsetting.

From the destroyer USS Conolly, Chief Petty Officer Timothy Peters, 35, will wave to his wife, Laurie, 33, and their five children. When he returns in September, there will be six children waiting.

Stress could increase

In the larger scheme of things military, such small family landmarks may go unnoticed. They are part of the routine of life at sea. But the stresses and strains that the Baisleys, the Peterses and thousands of other service families routinely face could worsen if crises keep erupting around the world and the defense budget keeps shrinking.

"Right now, we have the same commitments as we had before, when we were working toward a 600-ship Navy," said Chief Peters, an 18-year veteran. "They are doing 18 hours a day now. What more can they ask of these guys, when you have 360 places to be in, and you only have 346 ships available?"

Recalling the departure of career sailors during the last defense drawdown, he said, "If Congress says you can't have the money, then you are going to see it happening again."

By 1999, under Pentagon plans, the Navy is to shrink from 14 aircraft carriers to 12, the Army from 24 divisions to 16, the Air Force from 27 wings to 20, and the Marine Corps from 184,500 troops to 169,000.

Two years ago, 22,000 Marines were deployed overseas for six months or more in fast-response and forward-placed units, ready to respond to regional crises. Today, although the force has shrunk by 22,000, there are 24,000 Marines posted overseas on similar duty.

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