Readiness myths

Myth #1: It's a Readiness Crisis

No, it's a modernization crisis. During the late 1980s and early '90s, the Pentagon lived beyond its means, essentially by making deep cuts in its annual weapons-buying accounts (weapons spending has decreased by more than 66 percent since 1986) and by making do with the new arsenal of tanks, aircraft, and ships purchased during the Reagan buildup. In the past couple of years, however, with defense budgets nearly flat, peacekeeping demands increased, and down payments needed for the next generation of weapons, Pentagon leaders have chosen to trim the accounts that affect readiness: spare-parts purchases, equipment maintenance, base operations, re-enlistment bonuses, and training hours. Today's readiness problems stem largely from that conscious Pentagon decision and from the need now, in the late 1990s, to begin buying 21st-century weapons.

Myth #2: The Defense Department Is Grossly Underfunded

Defense spending has been cut by roughly 30 percent since 1989, and now, at about 2.5 percent of gross domestic product, is at its lowest level since before Pearl Harbor. When military spending reached its post-World War II peak, in the 1980s, President Reagan was spending nearly 6 percent of GDP on defense.

But the Cold War is over, and Cold War peaks may not be the best gauge for determining what constitutes prudent defense spending today. From 1946-90, annual U.S. Cold War defense spending, in inflation-adjusted 1999 dollars, averaged $310 billion-about 15 percent more than the $270.5 billion budgeted for 1999. And the American economy, after six straight years of expansion, is so much larger now than in the 1980s that 2.5 percent of GDP buys a lot more troops and hardware.

Even at present funding levels, the United States spends more on defense than do the next 10 nations-many of them close allies-put together.

Myth #3: Military Personnel Are Grossly Underpaid

Fingers point at an estimated 13 percent gap between military and civilian pay and at the fact that about 12,000 service members are eligible for food stamps.

Those 12,000 service members, however, account for less than 1 percent of the 1.4 million-member force, and almost all of them are young enlistees with five or more family members; these young parents would most likely have trouble making ends meet no matter what entry-level job they had landed out of high school. Furthermore, calculations of food-stamp eligibility do not take into account the free government housing given to some young enlistees.

The estimated 13 percent pay gap also bears closer scrutiny. The benchmark year, when military and civilian pay was said to be in balance, is 1981, just after the military had received successive 11.7 percent and 14.3 percent raises to eliminate a pay gap. But some experts dismiss that benchmark as inflated and argue that the pay differential is closer to 8 percent. A 3.6 percent pay raise in fiscal 1999, and a planned year-2000 raise of 4.4 percent-the biggest pay hike in 18 years-should help close that gap.

The pay gap is also exaggerated because calculations of military pay overlook many untaxed military benefits, including monthly housing and food allowances, health care, and reduced-price groceries at commissaries. And they overlook extra income such as re-enlistment bonuses and flight pay.

A Navy chief with 20 years' service, for example, receives basic pay of $28,732 annually. Counting housing and food stipends, untaxed allowances, and six months of sea-duty pay, however, brings the total to $50,727, according to Navy Times.

Still, perceptions matter, and the Administration and Congress undoubtedly need to find a way to counter a genuine perception in military ranks that people are poorly compensated and underappreciated.

"I think what you see," said Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, a retired Army personnel chief, "is a general anxiety created by a long drawdown, where many quality-of-life programs such as the health care and retirement systems have come under attack from cost-cutters. It's all starting to weigh on service members. Many people in uniform," he added, "feel like the pact the country made with them when they joined the military is being broken."

Myth #4: We're Not Ready for War

The Joint Chiefs on Sept. 29 told Congress that as a result of declines in equipment readiness and manning levels, the riskiness involved in fighting two major wars nearly simultaneously has risen from "moderate" to "high." The chiefs are confident, however, that the United States would win decisively in virtually any two-war scenario. The higher riskiness means winning could take longer, and could cost more lives.

In truth, however, the Cold War models with which the Defense Department gauges its ability to fight two major wars are deeply flawed and significantly overstate the threat. By emphasizing set-piece engagements between ground forces, for instance, they ignore the ability of U.S. air forces to establish air superiority over virtually any potential enemy, and then to destroy targets with precision-guided munitions even more accurate and more powerful than those used in the Persian Gulf War.

"I think we'd do much better in a two-war scenario than the Pentagon predicts," said retired Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, who worked with Pentagon war-fighting models as the Air Force's point man on two major defense reviews in the 1990s, "because current war-fighting models are the same ones that led [Gen. H. Norman] Schwarzkopf to order some 20,000 body bags for allied forces in preparation for Desert Storm. And since the Persian Gulf War," said Link, "our ability to conduct those types of conventional operations with precision-guided weapons and stealth technology has increased dramatically."

Current war-fighting models also fail to adequately reflect declines in the threats from the most likely sources. Since 1990, for instance, more than half of Iraq's military has been destroyed, and in the past seven years, crippling economic sanctions have denied Saddam Hussein $45 billion in oil revenue with which he might have rebuilt his military forces. North Korea, meanwhile, is internationally isolated and on the verge of mass starvation, and Russia is in the throes of economic and military meltdown. By the Pentagon's own best estimates, China is unlikely to emerge as a possible military rival even in the Pacific region until 2015-2020.

"I think it's a fair question," Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, chief of staff of the Army, said, "to ask whether the models have been adequately adjusted to reflect declines in the threat, and I'm not sure that they have. The models may tend to overestimate the threat a little bit. But I think they ought to lean towards overestimating rather than underestimating the threat. The bottom line is," he concluded, "the risk [involved in] fighting two major wars has gone up in terms of potential casualties-but, I would add, I like our chances much better than the opposing team's."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec