Military distress provokes campaign war of words

Bush raises issue of readiness

both sides pledge money

September 08, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, the new commander of the Navy's air forces in the Pacific, finally reached the end of his rope.

He had seen too many aging aircraft trying to keep up with the increased demands of overseas missions. Too many hangars without spare parts. Too much decrepit housing for sailors. So in his change-of-command speech aboard the carrier USS Constellation two weeks ago, he let loose.

"We have reached such a low level of funding it will soon be impossible to meet the expectations of this nation," he told hundreds of sailors, Marines and their guests in San Diego. "Isn't it right that the pilots and aircrews we send daily into harm's way have modern and capable aircraft? It is obvious the Naval service is undervalued."

Nathman's comments, unusually blunt for an active-duty officer, reflect what many military officers are saying privately, or less forcefully: Their services are overextended and underfunded. Their aircraft, ships and vehicles are too old to keep up with the increased demands of overseas missions.

Each of the services has its complaints. The average age of Navy aircraft is 17 years, while the typical Air Force plane is 20 - both historic highs. Forty percent of the Army's helicopters cannot perform their missions or are at high risk. The Marine Corps' amphibious assault vehicle is 28 years old, but was supposed to last just 20 years.

America's combat forces are still able to carry out the national military strategy - fighting two nearly simultaneous wars - but there are troubling trends, according to Pentagon reports and defense analysts.

"There are problems in the military that need attention, cracks and strains in people and equipment," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Equipment is aging."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, has attacked the Clinton administration for sending troops on too many overseas missions and not spending enough money to maintain an able fighting force.

"Our troops are not ready," Bush declared yesterday during a speech in Michigan, sharing the stage with Persian Gulf war Gens. Colin L. Powell and H. Norman Schwartzkopf, and former Marine Corps Commandant Charles C. Krulak. "A leader does not ignore troubling signs."

Bush's Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, sought last week to counter Bush's repeated criticisms of the administration's defense policy, saying, "Our military is the strongest and best in the entire world."

Defense budgets began declining in the final years of George Bush's administration - when GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney was secretary of defense - and continued a steady decline during the first seven years of the Clinton administration, which devoted more money to the daily operations of the military at the expense of purchasing new weapons.

Defense analysts note that Congress, controlled by Republicans since 1995, generally went along with that trend, adding about 2 percent each year to the Pentagon's budget.

"The decision to cut the defense budget, and to do so relatively deeply, was very much a bipartisan decision," according to a report by Steven M. Kosiak and Elizabeth E. Heeter of the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy institute in Washington.

"A strong case can be made that these cuts were an appropriate response to the end of the Cold War and attempts to bring the federal deficit under control," they said.

Spurred by the dire warnings of top military leaders, Clinton over the past two years began increasing the Pentagon's overall annual budget - which now stands at about $295 billion - and specified that more money be set aside for weapons purchases.

Earlier this year, Clinton and congressional leaders agreed to spend an additional $112 billion for defense over the next six years, the largest increase since the 1980s. Pentagon leaders, however, said at the time that $148 billion was needed to ease the strains on the military.

Now both Bush and Gore, making use of whopping budget surpluses, are calling for increases in defense spending beyond the $112 billion Clinton proposed.

Gore said this week that he would add another $100 billion to defense over the next 10 years, and Bush pledged $45 billion over the same period, while promising a top-to-bottom review to make sure the Pentagon is spending the money in the right areas.

The Gore campaign also charged that Bush "talks tough" about national defense and the "hollowness of the military" but devotes more of the budget surplus to a tax cut for the wealthy.

"Al Gore will put the national interest ahead of politics and make real investments to keep our military the strongest in the world," the Gore campaign said in a statement.

At the heart of both candidates' proposals are differing views about the role of America's military.

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