Ready or Not?

Has Clinton weakened America’s defenses?

Congressional Republicans would have you believe that the Clinton administration has gutted the U.S. military. Citing a “severe drop in overall military readiness,” Rep. Duncan Hunter says U.S. forces are being pushed “to the breaking point” and “could not fight and win against Iraq today as we did in 1991.” Sen. Trent Lott alleges a similar “downward spiral.” Sen. Bob Smith and others complain of a “readiness crisis.”

But the Republicans are wrong. On a per-person and per-weapon basis, U.S. armed forces are very good, and by some measurements they’ve never been better. Readiness levels have dropped a bit from their historic peaks during the Bush administration, and strains on troops are excessive in some cases. But overall, readiness remains comparable to the levels of the Reagan years and far superior to the 1970s, when Gen. Shy Meyer warned about the nation’s “hollow military.”

The best way to evaluate the day-to-day preparedness of the armed forces is: 1) to track the individual indicators—the intensity of training for most units, experience and aptitude levels of personnel, the state of repair of equipment, accident rates during exercises and deployments, recruitment and retention statistics, etc.; and 2) to assess the military’s performance when deployed abroad.

Statistics from the Pentagon’s February budget briefings show that training is as demanding as ever for front-line and rapid-reaction forces, and almost as rigorous for other units. About 70 percent to 80 percent of all airplanes and tanks and other major systems are typically “mission capable” at any time—not ideal, and not as good as the early ‘90s when rates were often 10 points higher, but comparable to percentages during the ‘80s Reagan buildup.

Too many qualified people are leaving the military, partly out of frustration with excessive demands of the job. And the strong economy has hampered recruitment. But recent military pay increases, better recruiting ad campaigns, and increased efforts to make overseas duty easier on families have helped arrest these negative trends. Today’s forces are the most experienced we’ve ever fielded, and the aptitude test scores of the average new recruit in the late ‘90s are higher than those of his or her ‘80s counterpart, according to the Department of Defense report Population Representation in the Military Service. As a result of the high skill of these troops, as well as rigorous equipment maintenance and careful safety policies, military accident rates have never been lower, despite the continuous deployments of troops and the preponderance of aging equipment. (See the Department of Defense’s annual report from the Directorate for Information Operations and Reports, Worldwide U.S. Active Duty Military Personnel Casualties.)

By any measure, troops sent overseas by the Clinton administration have distinguished themselves, even the forces that waged the fateful firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. (Civilian and military leaders mishandled that mission, not the troops.) Operations in the Balkans, ranging from the muscular peacekeeping mission in Bosnia to the air war last year over Kosovo, have been handled with extraordinarily high professionalism throughout the ranks. The same applies to the no-fly-zone missions over Iraq, carrier deployments in the Persian Gulf and near Taiwan, and the deterrent mission performed by U.S. troops in Korea.

If the Republicans have overstated their case, they still deserve some thanks for forcing President Clinton to pay attention to the U.S. military’s aches and pains. This political pressure has led to increases in military pay and other compensation, which, when corrected for inflation, are now as good as they have ever been. For most personnel, they are also generally competitive with comparable private sector positions, according to studies from the General Accounting Office and the Congressional Budget Office. Republican scrutiny has also led to better overseas deployment polices, largely by making them more predictable, spreading the workload around more parts of the military, increasing the number of certain types of especially busy military units (such as those flying specialized aircraft), and reducing superfluous demands on forces.

Yet despite their positive contributions, Republicans have taken their hypervigilance about readiness to pernicious extremes. Most recently, they have suggested (with the help of Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia) that U.S. forces should leave Kosovo next year, even if that means allowing Slobodan Milosevic to again brutalize the ethnic Albanian people, and have made it politically unthinkable to consider sending even a couple of thousand Western troops to tragedy-prone Sierra Leone. Don’t give them too much credit.

T urning to the big picture of military readiness, could the United States satisfy the “two-war strategy” by defeating two distinct foes—most likely Iraq and North Korea—at the same time? This is a complex subject, but the short answer is yes. While the United States would have a hard time fighting two simultaneous wars as demanding as Desert Storm, it could probably wage overlapping wars against Iraq and North Korea for these reasons: The threats from those two countries have declined over the ‘90s; the South Korean military has continued to improve; and materiel pre-stationed near Iraq and North Korea by the Clinton administration has enhanced military preparedness. Also, as the Pentagon’s January report on the Kosovo war demonstrates, many American weapons have improved in the last decade.

  The current two-war requirement may have us overpreparing for the threats we know and underpreparing for those we do not see as vividly, but that’s a question of strategy, not readiness. On this matter, the Clinton administration’s record is more mixed. It has acquitted itself reasonably well by developing a missile defense (albeit largely at Republican prodding), improving chemical protective gear and anti-mine technology, and reorienting some National Guard forces to deal with domestic terrorism and other emergencies. Its record falls short, however, when it comes to military research and development, which is being cut. And it’s also taking a leisurely approach in some other policy arenas—as one example, it is failing to substantially increase antibiotic stocks to protect civilian populations in the event of biowar.

  The Clinton administration’s inaction on these fronts leaves plenty of room for vigorous debate on matters of American national security, and particularly on broad matters of strategy. But when Republicans shout that the U.S. military isn’t ready, and that it is only a shadow of its former self, it is their claim that is hollow.