The Indianapolis News
October 9, 1998 
By Alan W. Dowd

Last week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered a grim assessment of America's military readiness, warning the Senate Armed Services Committee that "the long-term health of the total force is in jeopardy." Upon closer examination, the military's short-term health may be in jeopardy as well.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton conceded that waging two simultaneous regional wars — a possibility the Pentagon has been preparing for since the end of the Cold War — would be more costly than previously projected. While the US would emerge victorious, it would not resemble the Gulf War, where victory was decisive, quick, and relatively bloodless.

This should come as no surprise. With the exception of 1992, defense spending has been cut every year since 1987. It was slashed by 17% in the first two years of the Clinton presidency.

Indeed, President Clinton has been hard on the military and national security establishment. This is evident from top to bottom: In just five years, President Clinton has gone through three secretaries of defense, three chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, three CIA directors, two secretaries of state, and two national security advisors. And he has a trophy case of foreign policies to match — from multilateral nation-building in Somalia and Haiti, to big-stick diplomacy in Bosnia and Iraq, to bashful inaction in Cuba, North Korea, and China.

The president has enlarged NATO, declared war on trans-national terrorists, and expanded the military's role in drug interdiction, even as the military's assets dwindle away.

In tandem with budget cuts and post-Cold War reorganization, these constant changes in leadership and direction have had a ripple effect on the entire armed forces. Deployed too long and stretched too thin, airmen, soldiers, Marines, and sailors are leaving as soon as their minimum-service requirements are met. In 1998 alone, the Navy has already participated in eleven unforeseen deployments, in addition to its overall mission of deterrence. The rush and tempo of these deployments are causing mistakes: The Navy's aviation mishap rate has almost doubled this year. And the length and number of deployments are straining recruitment: The Navy will fall 7,000 men short of 1999's projected needs.

Even when they are not deployed, Marines are working 84-hour weeks. Air Force pilots are piling up thousands of flight-hours in tedious, skill-sapping missions over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. Fully one-quarter of the Air Force's planes cannot fly due to equipment and maintenance shortfalls. Key Army facilities report that they are not ready for troop deployments, which are numerous and arduous. There are now 68 annual Army deployments, an increase of almost 300% since the late 1980s, even though the Army has 650,000 fewer soldiers.

The Republican Congress has been a willing accomplice in diluting the US military -- balancing the federal budget, expanding social programs, and cutting taxes, all while allowing the president to pursue a hyperactive foreign policy with fewer resources. And now we are reaping the first-fruits of this gamble:

After years of diplomatic warnings, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic moved against Kosovo, creating another humanitarian disaster in the center of Europe. Because of America's perceived weakness, NATO is forced to use air strikes and missile attacks when words were once enough.

North Korea is brashly probing South Korea's defenses and testing medium-range missiles in the Sea of Japan.

Iraq is flouting UN Security Council resolutions at will. Its military is rebuilding and regrouping; its weapons program doggedly moves forward; and US warnings are ignored.

America has gone to war with each of these countries, two of them this decade. And because we've neglected the military, another Gulf War or Korean War or Balkan War looms.

Responding to the military's ever-expanding mission and shrinking budget, an exasperated member of the Joint Chiefs recently asked, "When is it going to stop?"

The answer is it won't — unless the United States brings its Cold War-sized mission into harmony with its post-Cold War budget. We must either decrease our commitments or increase our defense budget. Our armed forces simply cannot do more with less.

When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, the US devoted 4.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to national defense. Today, defense outlays account for just 3% of GDP — their lowest level since the end of World War II. By Inauguration Day 2001, defense spending will have plummeted to 2.8% of GDP. Not even during the late 1970s, when President Carter's own defense secretary ominously admitted that the US fleet could no longer protect the Mediterranean and would have difficulty protecting the vital sea lanes beyond Hawaii, was defense spending so low.

In fact, not since 1940, at a time when America had virtually no overseas commitments, has the country devoted such a paltry amount to national defense. This precipitous decline in military spending is reminiscent of the free-fall of the 1920s, when spending was slashed from 4.4% of GDP to just .7%.

Then, as now, the economy was good and America appeared strong. Then, as now, the future looked bright and war seemed unthinkable.

But the unthinkable became inevitable because America became weak. Perhaps we'll listen to the generals this time and prevent that from happening again.