Is the Army All It Can Be?

November 25, 1994

Robbing Peter to pay Paul as the fiscal year ends is an old bureaucratic game in Washington. Ordinarily little harm is done as funds are diverted, more or less temporarily, from one program to keep another going until new appropriations are available. But it's a lot more serious when the money-juggling is going on in the Pentagon and it involves not some of its long-range development programs but the combat readiness of the U.S. Army.

That appears to have been the case earlier this year as the Army strained to maintain unanticipated operations in Rwanda, Haiti and the Persian Gulf. It paid for them by cutting back on the training of combat units. The result is that some of these units are not fully ready for combat duty.

One of the most enduring debates spurred by this nation's international role has been over the size of the peacetime Army. Should it be ready to fight two major wars, one in Europe and another in Asia? Or one major war and a minor engagement? Or a minor war and several brush fires?

But there has been little discussion -- in public, at least -- of the Army's ability to mount expeditionary forces like the Rwanda rescue operation and the takeover in Haiti without sucking resources away from combat units still based at home. There needs to be such a discussion, and the new Republican Congress seems intent on holding such a debate.

The $1.7 billion cost of the unexpected operations meant that two units that were supposed to be ready for immediate deployment -- a full division and an armored cavalry unit -- were not completely prepared to fulfill any combat mission, and three Army divisions designated for prompt backup overseas were appreciably below full readiness. They suffered loss of big-unit training time, essential for combat readiness, or of parts and equipment. They won't be back to full readiness until sometime next year.

Just how serious a weakness is this? Defense officials have been considerably less than candid in talking about it to Congress. Even the $1.7 billion price tag of the unexpected missions is suspect, since some believe the Pentagon has been understating the cost of the Haiti operation. It wasn't until some Republicans in Congress started citing units that were standing down, rather than training, that defense officials hastily admitted they had a problem.

With Republicans taking control in Congress, the Pentagon may not have much trouble getting more money. But it has paid a price in credibility that might cost it far more in the long run.

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