Why slash our forces while we're at war?

July 17, 2002|By Ike Skelton

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has publicly stated numerous times that the war on terrorism will continue for some time.

Yet while we still have forces searching for terrorists in Afghanistan, helping to fight terrorism in the Philippines, training military forces in the Republic of Georgia, equipping and training government forces in Colombia and aiding the peace process in the Balkans, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is contemplating reducing our troop strength.

The Sun revealed July 10 that the Pentagon is planning in fiscal year 2004 to drastically reduce the number of men and women in uniform, focusing on both the 1.4 million people on active duty as well as the 1.3 million in the National Guard and Reserves.

According to the article, the Army could lose 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers, the Air Force could lose 40,000 airmen, the Navy could lose 20,000 sailors and the Marine Corps could lose up to 5,000 personnel. In total, the Pentagon could cut 90,000 jobs.

I know that the Pentagon will say that this plan is just something under consideration and not final. But it makes no sense to be even considering troop cuts when the problem we've heard about over and over is that the troops we have are already stretched too thin. Such a reduction is totally unacceptable, particularly while our nation is at war.

This is simply wrong. Do we need to modernize our war-fighting capabilities -- in short, to buy newer and better weapons? Yes. Should we do it on the backs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines? No. It is unfathomable to me that the Department of Defense would propose to reduce its end strength while the demands on our service members continue to increase. Or has nobody told the Pentagon there's a war on?

Before Sept. 11, the service chiefs told the House Armed Services Committee they needed more active-duty personnel to meet current obligations. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, testified that the Army needed 520,000 personnel to meet its mission requirements, as opposed to the 480,000 currently authorized. Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, stated that he needed 14,000 more sailors. Indeed, additional end strength was the number one item on the Navy's unfunded priorities list for fiscal year 2003. Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Michael E. Ryan has said that the Air Force is short 10,000 personnel, and Marine Corps Commandant James L. Jones indicated that his service needed 4,000 to 5,000 more Marines to accommodate the current pace of operations.

Since Sept. 11, none of our current operations has ceased or been reduced. In fact, the pace of operations for our troops has only increased and expanded.

All of the armed services have implemented stop-loss policies, which prohibit service members with critical skills from leaving active duty. The president also has authorized the call-up of more than 80,000 National Guard personnel and reservists to assist in the growing demands of homeland defense and the war on terrorism. The pressure of increased operations on our troops continues to grow, and I fear that each day more and more service members are burning out.

Each of the military services has embraced "transformation," examining innovative technologies to improve the way we fight future wars. Unfortunately, to this administration, "transformation" is just another fancy word for making our service members do more with less. Our military personnel deserve better. We can have the finest weapons systems in the world, but if you don't have bright, hard-working people to operate and maintain them, those systems are worthless.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, I want to be clear: It is unfair to the men and women who sacrifice so much for our great nation to make their jobs harder by artificially reducing the number of people in our military.

Moreover, it is extraordinarily unwise to contemplate this reduction at a time of war. The inevitable result will be more stresses on our people and their families, a deterioration in the quality of service for everyone in the all-volunteer force, more difficult in recruiting and retention, and ultimately a degradation in the effectiveness of the world's best military.

Many of us on the committee stand prepared to do whatever we can to prevent the implementation of end-strength cuts. The right course would be for Mr. Rumsfeld to support our troops and increase, not dramatically reduce, the number of men and women in uniform to defend our great nation. Less is not more. Less is less.

Ike Skelton, a Democrat, is a member of the House of Representatives from Missouri.

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