n a typical day in recent months, about 55,000 U.S. military personnel could be found participating in more than a dozen military operations around the world, few of which would ever make the evening news. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marking the end of the Cold War, the pace of troop deployments has grown exponentially as thousands of U.S. servicemen and women find themselves engaged in a fractured new world.
What was supposed to be a new era of peace has instead become an era of uncertainty: The 1989 invasion of Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega was followed by the war to contain Iraq in the Persian Gulf in 1992. Since then, U.S. troops have been engaged in operations ranging from humanitarian assistance in Central Africa to peacekeeping and peace enforcement in Haiti and Bosnia to strategic deterrence in Saudi Arabia and Korea. Many operations have fallen off the media radar screen, such as the rescue of Americans from Liberia and the force of observers deployed to ease tensions along the disputed border between Peru and Ecuador.
For the military, the predicted era of peace is more elusive than ever.
But are the troops losing their combat skills in the new noncombat roles they've been given? The answer is unclear. Under U.S. strategic plans, the military must be able to engage in two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously, as well as be able to participate in "operations other than war." Yet some observers in and out of uniform believe the military would be hard pressed to execute one such major contingency given troop and budget cuts since 1989 and the high level of participation in non-war operations.
Since 1990 the military has cut its active-duty ranks by 700,000 troops-more than the number of troops in the British, German, Dutch and Danish armed forces combined, and 200,000 more people than all the auto workers employed in the United States, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili. The Navy has gone from 566 ships to 354; the Air Force from 36 fighter wings to 20 and the Army from 18 combat divisions to 10. At the same time, the Defense budget has been cut 40 percent in real terms.
During this same period, the pace of military operations has grown tremendously, making it difficult to maintain combat training schedules for units at the company level and above. High personnel turnover to meet these missions only exacerbates the situation. Any way you measure it, the operational tempo of the armed forces has mushroomed: In the Air Force, for instance, on any given day 12,000 airmen are deployed, compared with only about 2,000 before the Persian Gulf War. In the years between 1982 and 1989, the Marines were involved in 15 contingency operations; since 1989, they've participated in 62. The Army says its operational tempo has increased 300 percent since 1989.
A look at U.S. troops based in Europe starkly illustrates the military's changed role. Before the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, there were more than 200,000 European-based troops, all focused on a single mission: combat with the Soviet Union. During the Gulf war, many of those units deployed for combat.
Today, there are about 60,000 U.S. troops in Europe. Most are either in Bosnia now, have served there recently, or are supporting the peacekeeping effort in the former Yugoslavia from bases in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia or Germany. None of these troops should be considered ready for a major combat operation, according to the Army's findings in a recent study prepared by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The February 1996 special study, "The Effects of Peace Operations on Unit Readiness," concluded that "peace operations that involve deployments of six months may have up to three times the actual deployed troop strength involved and not available for [a major regional conflict]."
John Hillen, a former Army officer in the Gulf war who is now a national security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, believes the Army's European-based troops should be considered "out of the warfighting business for two to three years," based on the amount of time spent participating in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and the time it will take to retrain for combat.
Since Hillen recently wrote commentaries to that effect published in the Wall Street Journal and National Review, he has been inundated with letters and phone calls from service members who agree with him, he says. A letter Hillen received from an Army combat commander now serving in Bosnia sums up much of the concern:
"I have quickly realized why the Mongols never conducted peacekeeping operations," the commander writes. "It is an unnatural act. Aggressiveness, ingenuity and initiative are quickly punished while apathy, timidity and bureaucracy are well rewarded. My best men have become disenchanted about the service . . . The conditions are so good down here that complacency is rampant. Every tent has four to six VCRs, central heat, a library, gym, full-service laundry, snow removal services, etc. . . . While it is a luxury to have these, we have gotten very soft as a result."
"These aren't malcontents who feel this way," Hillen says. "These are the all-stars."
Yet Army leaders have downplayed any combat readiness problems. Both former Defense Secretary William Perry and NATO Commander Gen. George Joulwan have said publicly that U.S. readiness has improved as a result of the Bosnia mission. And Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer billed the Army as the "rapid reaction force for the global village" at a recent speech in Boston.
"I've got to wonder what the [rank and file] are thinking when they hear their senior leaders making these public statements," Hillen says. "If the Army seeks institutional salvation in operations other than war, then we're in trouble." In the long run, Hillen says, he's concerned about the psychological impact of the military's evolving role as global peacekeeper on personnel retention and recruiting.
Annual Defense Department surveys tracking young people's attitudes have shown a significant drop in interest in military service among would-be recruits. The trend is alarming enough that the Defense Department has beefed up its recruiting and marketing efforts.
"It is possible that one of the reasons we've seen this gradual decline in interest is that the kinds of operations the military is engaged in now, the peacekeeping, the humanitarian operations, do not have the same cachet as standing at the Fulda Gap defending a free world from a Communist onslaught," said Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness in an interview last fall.
"It's not the mission per se, but it's the larger purpose. And clearly the fundamental mission we had during the Cold War was easier to understand and more compelling than the smaller more episodic contingencies we've gotten involved in," Dorn said.
Measuring a unit's combat readiness is as much art as science, says Louis Finch, deputy undersecretary of Defense for readiness. "This is amazingly complex. You're looking at people, training, materiel, spare parts-a host of things."
Under the Defense Department's Status of Resources and Training System (SORTS), every military unit maintains readiness records, detailing such things as the number of positions filled with qualified people, training scores, maintenance levels of equipment and spare parts available. SORTS data is collected regularly and distributed up the chain of command. While readiness reports of specific units are classified, service leaders say in general, readiness is high and meets wartime deployment standards established in the national military strategy.
In the last two years, Pentagon leaders also have developed what's called the Joint Monthly Readiness Reporting system, whereby representatives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the regional commanders-in-chief and various Defense agencies meet monthly to formally assess readiness.
"There's a vetting process," Finch says. "It's often the case that one of the players out there will not have complete visibility of what's available so they'll think they have a problem when maybe they don't. It's a very elaborate, extensive process with tentacles that go throughout the force."
But "it is a big mistake to sit in Washington and look at broad summaries and broad statements and necessarily believe that is the whole picture," Finch says. He's concerned about reports that units participating in exercises at the services' combat training centers, particularly the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., have shown an erosion of combat skills compared to troops in years past.
"We're now trying to figure out if this is something anecdotal to a particular set of units or if it's widespread. Frankly we haven't put our finger on it. That said, one of the things you find, compared with many times in the past, is we're in pretty good shape."
Marine Brig. Gen. Wallace Gregson, executive assistant to the director of central intelligence, says measuring readiness requires unit commanders to go beyond numerical measures of personnel and equipment and make judgment calls.
"There are limits to any system that attempts to quantifiably measure things," says Gregson. "Our system allows the commander to exercise his judgment. If the figures tell you that you're declining in readiness but there's a reason for it, you can explain it. Your judgment is, from my experience, never questioned. That goes for both downgrading readiness from what the figures tell you or upgrading.
"You can quantify what kind of equipment you wear out, but it's real hard to quantify what kind of knowledge and experience the troops get and how they feel about what they're doing. If they feel good about the missions they're assigned, if they feel they're accomplishing something worthwhile, I would submit that this vastly enhances readiness beyond any system we could ever design to quantifiably measure those types of things," he says.
While peacekeeping operations may degrade some combat skills, other skills are enhanced, making such operations worthwhile from a training perspective, argues Gregson.
"After five or six months in an operation like Somalia, you've maybe lost your capability to do technical artillery skills, you've lost maybe some of the coordination capability which requires constant practice at the brigade and division level. But what you get back is a tremendously capable and experienced force, especially at the small-unit leader level."
Gregson, who served as the assistant operations officer of the Unified Task Force Somalia during Operation Restore Hope, the humanitarian relief mission there, said the experience of the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines provides a good example. The artillery battalion served as a provisional infantry battalion responsible for the security of Mogadishu. "Not only were they coordinating their own actions, they were coordinating the efforts of 12 other nations to secure Mogadishu. They did that job in absolutely meritorious fashion for five months."
When Gregson assumed command of the 7th Marines after the Somalia mission, he inherited the battalion as his direct support artillery battalion. It took the unit about four months to regain all its artillery skills after service in Somalia, he says. "I don't think that the long-term loss of combat readiness is debilitating at all. I think it is very quickly recoverable after you come out of an operation like this. In the overall picture of readiness, you gain so much more because of the experience that the force has had."
The issue of maintaining military readiness in the face of high operating tempo may be most pressing for the Army, whose 10-division structure requires about 525,000 troops to fully staff. But the Army is only authorized (and funded for) 495,000 troops. Army officials have maintained the 10-division structure because that's the minimum force they believe they can retain and still be able to meet the requirements of the national strategy.
The resulting personnel shortfall has created a situation where Army commanders rob non-deploying units of their personnel and equipment to support units deployed to operations in Bosnia, Haiti and other regions. The effect on the non-deploying units can make realistic training-the hallmark of combat readiness-impossible.
The Center for Army Lessons Learned study cites a typical example in which a military police company must provide a platoon (19 soldiers and noncommissioned officers and one officer) and assorted equipment to support a peacekeeping operation. "The effect on this company is dramatic," the report concludes. "Once the [platoon is deployed] the company is at about 66 percent in personnel strength, and cannot accomplish most of their [critical tasks] to the expected standard," the study found. The company's degraded capabilities also affect the capabilities of its parent division.
Maj. Gen. David Grange, the Army's director for operations, readiness and mobilization, says that what's good for one unit's readiness often hurts another's. But, he says, "it depends on where you sit. If you're the one going to go do one of these missions, you'll be resourced very well because we will never send a soldier on any mission, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, deterrence or combat, who's not trained and ready. We just will not do it."
That hasn't always been the case, however. The CALL study found that the marksmanship training of soldiers in many combat support and service support units deployed to Somalia was inadequate: "One unit failed to qualify almost 10 percent of its soldiers while preparing for deployment. The unit did not have additional ammunition forecasted nor the time necessary to retrain and qualify failures. These soldiers deployed to Somalia unqualified, where they were given live ammunition and perimeter guard responsibilities."
Chronic equipment shortages also present problems for maintaining readiness, especially for units that have sacrificed equipment to other deploying units, or units recently returned from peacekeeping missions.
The CALL study found one combat service support unit that spent six months in Somalia still had significant equipment shortages a year after returning to the United States. The unit was considered for deployment to Haiti, but was prevented from going because of the shortages. According to the CALL study: "It may be two years before this unit fully recovers from six months in Somalia."
The Army is not alone in its readiness concerns. In 1994, members of one Air Force electronic warfare squadron were so stressed by deployments they appealed to members of Congress and the chief of staff of the Air Force for relief due to their concerns about safety, according to an April 1996 General Accounting Office report.
Three of the unit's seven aircraft had been deployed to Bosnia continuously since July 1993. With those aircraft still in Bosnia, the squadron was tasked to send two other aircraft to Haiti for two weeks in September 1994, and three to Saudi Arabia in mid-October 1994, during which time the squadron was relocating to a new base.
"These deployments harmed morale and degraded the unit training program and overall readiness," the GAO found in its report. "An Air Force investigation of the incident concluded that the squadron would need eight to 12 months to regain its prior level of training proficiency."
In the last two years the Air Force has worked hard to reduce the stress on such frequently deployed units, says Lt. Col. Jeff Fink, chief of Air Force readiness policy and issues. The service's goal is to limit deployments to 120 days per year per person, he said. And like the Army, he says, the Air Force is turning to reserve component troops to handle more missions.
Beginning last August, the Defense Department implemented a new policy to help regulate the pace of operations for what the services call low-density, high-demand units, which are few in number but are frequently deployed for contingency operations.
"If you look across the force to determine where is the stress of conducting these operations other than war, largely it is not universal across the force," says Finch. "Most of the time it is in very specific units" such as military police, airlift and reconnaissance units.
"Over time we dug ourselves in a hole," Finch says. "We'd deploy these units, then we wouldn't have assets available to train people and because we weren't training as many people as we should, the people that were deployed were spending an incredible amount of time away from their homes and families. It just got to be worse and worse."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogelman initiated a plan to relieve such units with what has become the Global Military Force Policy. Under the policy, each of the services identified their low-density, high-demand assets and set a threshold for deploying those assets.
"The rules are, if someone requests one of these units, if the request doesn't break the threshold everything is OK. If it does bump up against the threshold, negotiations begin, maybe exercises can be rescheduled or something like that. If there is simply high-level demand that will put you up over the threshold, then the question goes to the Secretary of Defense. You set up a construct where if the decision is made to break the threshold, it is made at the highest level of the department," Finch says.
Ready for What?
The military's current system for measuring readiness is a construct of the Cold War, where the spectrum of tasks expected of units was fairly narrow. In the new security environment, those measures are inadequate, service leaders say.
"The readiness system we have is not broken, but it is not in tune with what's going on since the Cold War ended," Grange says. "When the Cold War was with us, readiness standards were fairly cut and dried. Units had usually one type of mission; they didn't have to react like they do now. Now, your unit may be deployed to Eastern Europe, to Africa, wherever the case may be, to do any range of missions."
Different missions have different requirements; units other than traditional combat units have to be formed to respond to noncombat missions, so a unit deemed "ready" for combat may not have the necessary training or equipment for peacekeeping or humanitarian assistance.
Besides the obvious differences in combat versus noncombat mission requirements, the Army is trying to develop a better way to measure some of the intangible elements of readiness, such as unit morale, the stress of multiple deployments and the adequacy of facilities for soldiers and their families, Grange says.
Finch agrees with the need for better readiness measures. To provide more clarity of missions and requirements, the Defense Department is now developing the Universal Joint Task List, a detailed description of all of the jobs expected of the military, which will be used by commanders when assessing their unit's readiness for specific missions.
"While we have a lot of good reporting, it tells you how things are today but it doesn't tell you how things will be six months from now," Finch says. "If you're managing resources close to the edge you need to be able to do that. If you wait until the train wreck, it's going to take a long time to put things back together."