Congressional Republicans put priority on strengthening U.S. armed forces

November 27, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Army infantry units denied training for lack of funds.

Navy flying time restricted to pay for warship movements.

Marine pilots grounded to save the cost of fuel.

Defense-minded Republicans are set to tackle such indicators of an underfinanced and over-stretched military when they put their stamp on the nation's priorities next year.

The strengthening of military readiness -- the ability of U.S. forces to respond to any challenge -- has become the GOP's top defense priority as they prepare to take over Congress and oversight of the Pentagon.

Rep. Floyd D. Spence of South Carolina, the likely new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has warned that U.S. military units are now caught "in a downward readiness spiral that shows no prospect of easing in the foreseeable future."

Mr. Spence took issue this month with an assertion by John Deutch, the deputy defense secretary, that U.S. forces were currently "more ready and capable than they've ever been."

Mr. Spence, in a letter to Mr. Deutch, wrote: "If this indeed represents your judgment on the current state of U.S. military readiness, it sharply conflicts with the reality of the reduced readiness condition facing operational units across all services and commands."

To stop the perceived decline, Republicans are looking to freezing defense cuts, cutting U.S. peacekeeping operations, and stripping non-military spending, such as medical research, from the Pentagon's budget -- all to make more money available to combat forces.

The General Accounting Office estimated earlier this year that the Clinton administration's defense budget was underfinanced by as much as $150 billion over the next five years and accused the Defense Department of overstating savings and understating costs. The Pentagon questioned the GAO's methods of arriving at the figure.

Although it is widely presumed the advent of the Republicans brings good news to the Pentagon, a GOP veteran of defense legislation said: "There is going to have to be considerable tension because we are talking about billions of dollars. We are talking about a very badly costed and structured budget that cannot support the posture and strategy associated with it."

The central fear, inside and outside the Pentagon, is that U.S. forces could become "hollow," the description originally applied to their inability to perform their central mission during the late 1970s after the defense reduction by the Carter administration.

Pentagon officials acknowledge reduction in training schedules of some units, extension in length of deployments, and delays in maintenance schedules, but argue that the nation's military is still able -- and ready -- to fulfill its immediate missions.

In a letter earlier this month to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., Defense Secretary William J. Perry said that the Pentagon had taken "aggressive measures" to minimize the threats to military readiness but admitted that "each of the services had to selectively cut back on readiness-related activities."

The basic reason, according to defense officials: the $1.7 billion fiscal 1994 cost of unforeseen overseas crises, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. These included the intervention in Haiti, the rapid deployment to Kuwait and the mission to Rwanda. They had to be paid out of the existing Pentagon budget at the expense of other programs, particularly training, which is key to overall readiness.

Congress has so far approved only $1.2 billion in supplemental funds to cover the extra costs of the contingency operations.

Mr. Perry has warned legislators that unless they approve the fiscal 1995 supplemental budget requests by March or April next year, U.S. force readiness could again be "at risk" as monies are sidetracked for emergency operations.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said: "Any readiness problems that face us are temporary and will be cured when Congress appropriates the money to pay for current operations. We have not gotten the money we need fast enough.

"The problem is not an acute problem. It is standard for funding shortfalls at the end of the year. This has been a year when the military forces have been challenged, and they have met those challenges in a number of very difficult geographic settings. A force that was unready would not have been able to perform this variety of demanding operations in such a short time."

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a Michigan-based military think tank, said: "We are still the best military in the world, but we are very quickly undermining that strength."

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