Joint Chiefs describe problems fraying U.S. military readiness Some senators react angrily to last-minute request for more funds

September 30, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Aging weaponry, inadequate pay and benefits, and too many overseas missions are causing serious strains within the armed forces, top military chiefs warned Congress yesterday, saying tens of billions of dollars will be needed to correct the problems.

Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while the military can still execute its goal of being able to fight two major wars simultaneously while still meeting its security commitments elsewhere, there are indications it is being stretched too thin.

"Our forces are showing increasing signs of serious wear," Shelton told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the most dire assessment of military readiness by top military officials in years. "Our current readiness is fraying, and the long-term health of the total force is in jeopardy."

A robust economy and better-paying private-sector jobs are luring away both potential recruits and midlevel officers, the chiefs said.

In addition, there is not enough money to both modernize today's force and invest in future weapons and technologies, the chiefs said, offering grim statistics to press their point.

The Navy is 7,000 sailors short of its recruiting goals. Navy aviation accidents are up 84 percent, which Adm. Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, said he thinks is due to reduced training.

The Air Force expects to be 700 pilots short this year and 2,000 pilots short by 2002 if the trend continues, said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff. Meanwhile, the Marines' average repair bill for their aging equipment has more than doubled in four years.

And Army commanders are having trouble funding brigade and battalion training that was once common, said Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff.

While both committee Republicans and Democrats supported the calls for increases in the $250 billion annual defense budget, Republicans sharply criticized Shelton and the service chiefs for failing to warn earlier of problems that have long been the subject of complaints within the ranks.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, led the charge by calling the hearing "almost Orwellian," angrily reminding the chiefs that just seven months ago they had offered Congress a far more positive picture of military readiness.

"The readiness problem did not come out of nowhere," Sen. Robert C. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, told the assembled officers. "You and your predecessors presided over it."

Some of the troubles, Shelton replied, came to light only after that February hearing. He pointed to rising problems in recruiting and retention, a long deployment to the Persian Gulf by two carrier groups and the failure of Congress to support two rounds of base closings, which the Pentagon said could save $21 billion by 2015 and $3 billion each year thereafter.

"What we're seeing is a culmination of things that have been built up," Shelton said.

The four-star Army general said more money should be set aside for his "greatest concern": pay and benefits for service members, a suggestion echoed by the service chiefs.

Pay for military personnel lags about 14 percent behind civilians, according to the Pentagon. Changes in the military retirement system are causing experienced service members to reconsider military career, Shelton said. Before 1986, military personnel had been promised 50 percent of their base pay upon retirement, a figure now reduced to 40 percent.

Just closing the gap between military and civilian pay would cost between $35 billion and $45 billion over the next five years, according to the Pentagon; fixing the retirement system over the same period would cost an additional $9 billion.

Billions more will be needed for each of the services for everything from spare parts and housing to operations and modernization.

Republican members said they have long added money to the defense budget and faulted the Clinton administration for the readiness problems. They pointed to increases in costly foreign operations, such as in Bosnia and Haiti, and sharp reductions in U.S. military personnel, which now number 1.4 million, down from from 2.1 million in the mid-1980s.

But Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said that of the $24 billion that Congress added to the defense budget from 1995 to 1998, nearly 85 percent went to procurement, research and development and military construction accounts, which have little to do with readiness.

Meanwhile, President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen met recently with the military chiefs and pledged $1 billion in added funding for next year's budget for spare parts, Navy manpower and Army training.

The president also instructed the administration to come up with a multiyear plan to address readiness issues and to modernize the military for the 21st century.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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