Ready or Not?

7 minute read
Mark Thompson/Washington

It’s like a routine inspection, but on a much grander, million-man, scale. Every month, in an arcane and complicated ritual tracking thousands of troops, tanks and tarpaulins, Army bean counters rate the readiness of each of the service’s 10 divisions. Troops, weapons, logistics and training are all measured, then reviewed by commanders and tweaked if the results might give a misleading impression of a division’s fitness to fight. The grades range from C-1–fully ready to wage war–to C-4, unprepared for battle. The marks warn the Army of impending problems and help the generals know when to turn up the spigots for troops or materiel if a unit is lagging. The results are secret, complicated and, even inside the Army that lives by them, highly controversial.

So last week, when lawmakers got word that two of the Army’s key divisions rated C-4s in October, Capitol Hill quickly took on the aura of an unhappy dinner table on report-card night. Who was to blame? Republicans pointed fingers at the Clinton Administration, complaining that Democrats had once again underfunded defense. “Over the past several years, the readiness of the Army has been deteriorating as a result of insufficient funding and a foreign policy that has committed military personnel to areas where we have no vital security interests,” said Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee readiness panel. And there were dire warnings that America was not ready to fight. But, like so many things that emanate from the Pentagon, there’s far more to this story than the bald fact that a pair of divisions flunked their readiness drill.

Actually, Pentagon spending on readiness, per soldier, is near an all-time high, eclipsing even 1991’s tally, which included the Persian Gulf War. And while the Army is not at the peak of readiness, the relevant question is not why not, but rather, why should it be? After all, the Soviet army, with its swarms of T72 tanks, is no longer poised at the German frontier’s Fulda Gap, ready to pour into Western Europe in the next 30 minutes. Instead, today’s U.S. military is deployed, in relatively small numbers, to regional hot spots that Washington wants to keep from becoming global conflagrations. So the Army’s admission that the 10th Mountain Division and the First Infantry Division are not ready for war is surprising only until one learns why: their commanders secretly rated the units unfit for combat because up to half of their troops–less than 1% of the active-duty military–were busy tending to peacekeeping duties in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Since the end of the cold war, the Pentagon has said it would need all its troops to meet its pledge to wage and win two “major theater wars” at once. But because it would take up to 90 days to move troops in Bosnia and Kosovo to a new conflict–longer than permitted under Pentagon guidelines–their commanders had no choice but to rank their units as unable to fight.

The impact of the unready forces revealed last week is largely hypothetical. First of all, the two divisions would be among the last to go to war under current Pentagon war plans, and would be bound for the second of the two wars. And they would not get to the war too late, just later than the Pentagon would like (the actual timetables are classified). “There will be a delay,” a senior Pentagon official says. “It doesn’t imply we won’t win the war.” And there, of course, is the biggest assumption of them all: that the Pentagon will be asked to fight two wars at once anytime in the near future.

When the readiness numbers hit the streets last week, Army officers stormed Capitol Hill and the Pentagon briefing room, assuring Members of Congress and reporters that the Army remains ready to wage and win those two wars if and when they happen. Nevertheless, among Pentagon watchers and the more candid Army officers, the ability of the service to carry out that ambitious strategy is in fact doubtful.

According to a closely held Army assessment, the service says it needs 747,176 troops to wage two wars. (Only 240,006 of them would actually engage in combat.) But when the Army counted its war-fighting troops, including reserves, it came up 72,500 short. While most combat units were fully manned, there were large shortfalls in the numbers of supply, transport and chemical-protection troops. And in its war plans, the Army assumes that all its forces–even those deployed on peacekeeping missions–would be available for immediate redeployment to a war zone. The Pentagon admits that this assumption is “overoptimistic,” since units deployed to places like the Balkans have to pack up their gear and travel to ports for shipment home. Then they’d have to re-outfit and retrain before heading off to war.

In addition to ignoring the delay that peacekeeping deployments would cause, the Army also made two questionable assumptions: that the U.S. would have unfettered access to overseas ports and airfields, and that a foe would not use chemical weapons to hamper the American deployment. (The Army has only 12,300 of the 23,600 specially trained troops it would need to grapple with a chemical attack.)

Part of the readiness problem is that the Army is having difficulty attracting and holding on to soldiers. The dedication to Mom, country and apple pie that sent generations of kids into the Army has vanished, but through the 1980s young people still responded to the job opportunities, training and money of an Army life. No more. The service’s well-honed scholarship and educational programs are struggling in a booming peacetime economy. In the year ending Sept. 30, the Army signed up 6,300 fewer recruits than the 74,500 it needed.

Even after the Army brings its recruits in, it must struggle with the question of how to train and arm them for the wars of the future. Should the Army continue as a mostly heavy, armored force, or pivot to become a more nimble, fast-deploying outfit? The Pentagon’s reluctance earlier this year to send the Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships into battle over Kosovo showed how quickly cold war weapons can become irrelevant. Slowly, the Army is coming to realize that it may be too cumbersome and too complex for future conflicts. The service is weighing replacing the mammoth 70-ton M1 tank with lighter–perhaps even wheeled–vehicles. It is considering the possibility of cutting production of its $48 billion fleet of nearly 1,300 Comanche helicopters, a program conceived a generation ago to battle the Soviet military. And it is thinking of slashing by more than half its $22 billion purchase of 1,100 Crusader self-propelled howitzers (which weigh 110 tons each, with a supply vehicle). But despite these potential cutbacks, the momentum of previous appropriations will push the Army into spending tens of billions of dollars on cold war arms ill suited for tomorrow’s battles.

In a sense, momentum may be the most dangerous enemy the Army has to face right now. Though a host of energetic young military strategists in the Army and at outside think tanks have made proposals for a “new look” Army, it will be decades before such a force is ready for battle. That may be fine if the U.S. continues to squelch most international conflicts from pressurized cockpits at 25,000 ft. But the Army insists that one day we will need hundreds of thousands of armed men and women to help protect our national security. No one wants that day to come soon, but last week’s readiness numbers provided yet another reason to hope that America’s Army can stay in its barracks at least until it figures out how to get ready for war.

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