Dod at Cracking Point?

"Dear Boss: Well, this is it. I'm done. I'm putting in my papers and getting out." This opening to a widely circulated good-bye letter from an Air Force pilot has sent shivers down the backs of Pentagon leaders.

Frustrated and disillusioned with a military in decline, the mid-career pilot emitted a primal scream of protest against decreasing opportunities, eroding benefits and superiors more concerned with keeping up a spit-shine appearance than with looking after the welfare of their troops.

"I'm tired. I've been told to do more with less since I got in. Manning is low, so we've got to pull double or triple duty, put in 12- to 14-hour days during the week, flying and then putting out the [administrative] fires," wrote the pilot, whose letter was reprinted in Air Force Times.

For senior leaders, the letter has provoked an eerie sense of deja vu. When the generals now running the Air Force were young captains themselves, a strikingly similar "Dear Boss" letter was written by a young captain. That letter came to symbolize the low-water mark of the late 1970s, famously remembered as the days of the "hollow force." Then as now, the military was in the midst of an extended postwar drawdown, budgets were declining, training dollars were tight, and pilots were leaving in droves to take more lucrative and more stable jobs with the airlines.

The truth is, the U.S. military and America itself have never gotten a peacetime drawdown right. The nation naively turns its energies and resources elsewhere, and the military retreats behind the gates of its bases until the next conflict inevitably comes. When it does, that clash typically begins with a historic debacle, as unprepared American troops falter in such places as Kasserine Pass in World War II, on the Korean Peninsula with Task Force Smith, in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam and at Desert One in Iran with the failed hostage-rescue attempt of 1980. Each represents the bitter fruit of a poorly managed retrenchment.

Today's military leaders--all of whom endured the debilitating drawdown that followed defeat in Vietnam--pledged to break that destructive cycle. Their motto was simple: Never again.

For the most part, they've done an admirable job of keeping that promise. With the help of Congress, military leaders since 1990 have largely protected annual pay increases and quality-of-life initiatives. Two decades after Vietnam and seven years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is still the world's best-trained and most formidable military force.

In contrast with previous peacetime drawdowns, however, the U.S. military is busier than ever. Deployments have increased by 300 percent over Cold War averages. The fat of the 1980s Reagan-era buildup has been burned, and the equipment arsenal will begin aging dramatically after 2000 without a major and costly modernization effort. And while the "Dear Boss" pilot of 1997 is clearly far better off than his counterpart of 1978, his letter represents but one warning signal among many, that the military may be starting to crack under the strain of doing more with less.

Just as in 1978, the Air Force is facing a pilot retention problem. The departure rate is up 40 percent in just the past year, and fewer than half of the pilots eligible for a mid-career bonus (which carries a commitment to stay roughly five more years) have accepted it. An exodus of pilots, who were trained at a cost of more than $1 million apiece, is something the Air Force can ill afford.

Military pay and benefits are also being squeezed. Unless present trends are reversed, the pay gap between military and private-sector wages--as measured by the government's economic cost index--will rise from 12.9 percent this year to 15 percent by 2001.

Many service members also believed that a covenant was broken when numerous health care benefits for military retirees fell prey to recent cost cutting moves. To save further money, the Pentagon plans to close 17 military hospitals and the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

Armed with a highly critical Congressional Budget Office report, a number of lawmakers are contemplating abolishing or sharply curtailing the taxpayer-subsidized military commissaries and exchanges, which offer discount shopping for service members.

The ability to attract and retain high-quality enlisted personnel was seen as key to turning around the fortunes of the all-volunteer force in the early 1980s. But Army recruitment is down 10 percent this year. In an especially worrisome sign, the Army this year lowered its goal for the percentage of enlistees that must be high school graduates from 95 percent to 90 percent, and is still failing to meet the target. Recruits with high school diplomas are much more likely to complete their first year, and much less likely to cause disciplinary problems. Also troubling is a General Accounting Office study showing that 30 percent of Army recruits now leave the service before their first tour is finished.

Meanwhile, the demands on the military continue unabated. Whether it's keeping the peace in Bosnia, patrolling the skies over northern Iraq, waving the stick of coercive diplomacy in the Taiwan Strait or conducting an emergency evacuation of foreign nationals from Albania and Zaire, the U.S. military continues to operate as the global 911 force of choice.

Because such "contingency" operations are rarely financed in advance--and congressional supplemental appropriations come notoriously late, if at all--the military normally pays for such missions by dipping into its operations and maintenance accounts. Preventive maintenance is deferred, and planned war exercises are scrapped. Service members then pay the price in unreliable equipment and lost training opportunities.

Despite the "Dear Boss" letter and various warning signs, the U.S. military of 1997 is not the "hollow force" of 1979. The services continue to demonstrate their competence and esprit de corps in operations around the world. History has shown, however, that the cost of a military drawdown left unchecked is eventually paid with the blood of American service members. We've been there before. Never again.

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