January 4, 1999
MARGARET WARNER: Over the weekend President Clinton announced his new budget proposal will seek the largest defense spending increases in more than a decade. The money would go for new equipment, pay, and pensions. Tom Bearden reports on some of the problems and pressures leading to Mr. Clinton's decision.
TOM BEARDEN: This is the army version of "Top Gun" -- the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Ten times a year the army's most powerful armored forces go head-to-head in the Mojave Desert, trying to sharpen their skills to a razor's edge. But everyone here agrees that the razor isn't as sharp as it used to be.
COLONEL JOHN ROSENBERGER: Here's what you're going to see. If you look out there -
TOM BEARDEN: Col. John Rosenberger is one of the key leaders of Fort Irwin's training cadre.
COLONEL JOHN ROSENBERGER: I've fought here and I was also here four years ago as a senior brigade trainer. There is a decrease in the level of proficiency of the units, the entry-level proficiency of forces when they come here - there's no question.
TOM BEARDEN: Military leaders say there are many reasons for that, not the least of which is far less manpower doing many more jobs. The entire military has been downsized considerably from its Cold War peak in 1988. Some of the biggest cuts have fallen on the army. Army chief of staff General Dennis Reimer.
GENERAL DENNIS REIMER: We've taken out over 600,000 people out of the force since 1989. That's the active component, the reserve component, and also some dedicated DA civilians in that number, and I think that's an awful lot of change, it's an awful lot of drawdown to have take place. And at the same time the pace of operations have increased.
|Everything but . . .|
TOM BEARDEN: Even as the force was being cut, Congress and the administration were showing an increasing willingness to use the military in non-combat situations. Washington has sent troops to Somalia, present-day Kuwait, Bosnia, and Haiti for what the army considers peacekeeping missions -- missions one step short of the military's traditional purpose-to kill the enemy. The army is even being used for global relief efforts from Africa to Central America. Army commanders say all of that has had a considerable effect on the combat readiness of the entire force -- even in front-line units like those that train at Fort Irwin.
SPOKESMAN: From there up to objective - the complete destruction of the car --
TOM BEARDEN: On a blustery day in November, the third Brigade of the third Infantry Division, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, prepared to engage the "op-for"-the opposing force - that's the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment permanently stationed at Fort Irwin.
SPOKESMAN: The MRB reserve, now, when is he going to commit the MRB reserve?
TOM BEARDEN: The task force commander walked his officers through a sand table model of the terrain features through which they would be maneuvering during the night. As usual, the opposing force mimics the organization and tactics of a Soviet-style mechanized rifle unit -- equipment and methods still used by many second and third world countries. Col. Rosenberger is the opposing force commander.
COLONEL JOHN ROSENBERGER: The op-for remains the best trained force that our army can sustain and provide. It's imperative that we do. The op-for must remain the anvil, if you will, upon which we forge the combat power of the heavy and light forces of our army here at the National Training Center.
TOM BEARDEN: An armored brigade on the move can be an irresistible juggernaut -- or a disorganized rabble ready for slaughter. Brigade Commander Col. John Gardner would be the first to say that the hardest thing about running a unit with some 4,000 soldiers and hundreds of vehicles is coordinating their actions. In previous years, brigades had the money to go out and train as a complete unit before coming to the national training center. But recently training funds have sometimes been diverted to overseas missions and new equipment.
COLONEL JOHN GARDNER: The last four or five years, the resources generally have not been available to do battalion and brigade level exercises. So your first opportunity to really pull the whole brigade conduct team together and try to synchronize all the operating systems is generally when you get here.
TOM BEARDEN: Gardner says that means his unit came here less prepared than in the past and consequently will leave the NTC less ready as well. On this day the third brigade wasn't rabble, but neither was it a juggernaut. The brigade attacked the op-for with laser-simulated weapons and blank ammunition, while high and low tech sensors monitored the progress of the battle. Despite painstaking preparations, the brigade's innovative attack plan fell apart that day, victims of the op-for's superior training and experience. That was frustrating for Staff Sergeant Paul Lollar. His M1A1 tank had been "knocked out" by enemy laser fire. Lollar has been to the NTC many times before.
STAFF SERGEANT PAUL LOLLAR: Over my time, the first time I came out to the national training center was 1985, and I have seen a lot of improvements in the equipment. On the same side I'm seeing a reduction in the actual time that soldiers stay out here in the maneuver box. My first trip we were out here for almost 30 continuous days of operation, now it is down to about 14. And, understandably, you know, it is due to budget constraints.
TOM BEARDEN: And this type of training is very expensive. It costs more than $24 million to bring a brigade to the NTC for one month. Colonel J. D. Thurman says the third brigade's decline in readiness is far from unique. He commands the operations team responsible for the training exercises at the
NTC COLONEL J. D. THURMAN: I've been the commander of the operations group for 17 months. Most units have not had the opportunity to train above the company team level.
TOM BEARDEN: Thurman says another factor in the decline of readiness is the constant rotation of soldiers out of units to overseas peacekeeping assignments, rotations that sap the institutional memory of those units.
|A lot on the plates.|
COLONEL J. D. THURMAN: We got a small force, we got ten divisions; you take the operational requirements that are current in the army, one being in Bosnia; we keep folks in Kuwait. There is a constant rotation of folks into those areas, so there's a lot on the plates out there of these division commanders.
TOM BEARDEN: That's a problem Captain Nathan Haas has been trying to cope with on this deployment to the NTC. Some of the slots in his unit are empty; others are filled with unqualified people.
CAPTAIN NATHAN HAAS: Usually the positions get filled by somebody who's not trained in that job. They are kind of amateurs compared to someone who is trained for it. So, there is a lot of critical systems that impact 600 and some people in a battalion. And, well, for instance we were talking about intelligence earlier, you know, if you don't have a good intelligence analyst during the orders process, the people who are there have to work harder with the products they have, and you end up, you know, possibly going into battle without a clear picture of, you know, what the enemy situation is.
TOM BEARDEN: So this unit can't function to its full effectiveness without those people?
CAPTAIN NATHAN HAAS: Correct. Correct.
TOM BEARDEN: Some non-front line army units report staffing levels as low as 65 percent. Even when units have their full complement, there are still problems. This maintenance unit has all of the people it's supposed to have but has been assigned to take of twice as many vehicles as they're supposed to have. Their job is to keep these "HETS"-or heavy equipment transports-operating. The mammoth flatbed trucks are used to transport tanks and other vehicles around the desert training center. It costs 147 dollars a mile to drive an M1A1 tank, so they try to use the HETS as much as possible. As a result, the trucks get considerably more use than they would in a normal unit. Under these conditions, keeping a normal complement of HETS running would call for long days. Twice as many means long nights, too. And sometimes they run out of spare parts. Only 15 out of 24 trucks were in service this day. One had been out of commission for more than 200 days because of lack of parts. Some non-front-line units have even worse problems with shortages of people and spare parts.
SGT. MILLER: If we can't put a truck on the road that means it is one less tank that gets moved; if we have 24 - do have 24 systems here that roll - as long as rotation's here - and if we can't put 24 trucks on the road, then we have to cut it down. And sometimes we will have missions where 100 pieces - 100 tanks have to be moved, and we might be only able to put 10 to 15 trucks on the road. And you are looking at maybe three hours for every trip that we have to pick up a tank, and even turn out to where we have to be here at 5 in the morning and not get out of here till 9 or 10 o'clock at night. And if we could have 24 trucks on the road at all times, the days would be shorter and we would be able to do a lot more work.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you get frustrated when this happens?
SGT. MILLER: Yes sir, everybody gets frustrated; it rolls downhill, and it's due to the fact this is a high visibility area, and this is such an important mission that a lot of people get involved and want to know why things aren't working right.
TOM BEARDEN: Frustration is one of the reasons many young officers and senior enlisted personnel are leaving the army. So is what is viewed as an uncompetitive pay scale. And that worries Brigade Commander Gardner deeply.
COLONEL JOHN GARDNER: If I could change one thing, I probably would raise the pay for certain first classes and staff sergeants.
TOM BEARDEN: Why is that?
COLONEL JOHN GARDNER: I am not sure right now, just given the retirement, the views in the military society and how things have changed in the last 10 years whether the talented people coming in now will stay, so that the brigade commander 15 years from now will be able to view things like I do.
|The last thing the army needs . . .|
TOM BEARDEN: This fall, Congress and the president answered the military's call for more money to try to deal with some of these problems. Congress devoted an extra $1.1 billion specifically to readiness. But some critics say the last thing the army needs is more money.
CHUCK SPINNEY: Adding money to the defense budget now is not going to fix the problem. In fact, it's going to set the stage for even worse problems in the future.
TOM BEARDEN: Chuck Spinney is an analyst in the Secretary of Defense's office who has been following the readiness problem since 1992. He prefaced his remarks by saying the opinions were his own. Spinney says efforts to modernize the force with new equipment are draining away money for readiness.
CHUCK SPINNEY: It's basically caused by an interaction of rising costs of modernization, rising costs of operating our equipment, so basically what we do is we make decisions today that create bills downstream that we can't afford to pay. So the only way we pay them, and this has been going on since 1957, is to shrink the force structure, and to reduce readiness.
TOM BEARDEN: Military analyst Lawrence Korb also thinks buying expensive new weapons should have a lower priority than readiness.
LAWRENCE KORB: There's no need for us to continue to buy new generations of sophisticated weapons systems. The ones we have are more than adequate, and what we all ought to do is doing research and development to guard against a breakout, say, by another major power.
TOM BEARDEN: In fact, Korb says the army is training people for the wrong mission at the National Training Center.
LAWRENCE KORB: The army is still ready to fight the Soviet Union, but they're not fighting the Soviet Union, they're doing much more of what we call operations other than war and peace-keeping, and that's causing them some strains because they're spending all their money preparing for what they're not doing.
TOM BEARDEN: Korb believes the army should restructure itself for the reality of its new missions.
LAWRENCE KORB: The army has ten active divisions. Six of them are heavy, to fight these large major land wars. They really ought to have maybe one or two heavy on active duty, put the rest in the reserves, and the active army should be trained, equipped and structured to deal with the Bosnias, the Haitis, the Rwandas, the Somalias.
TOM BEARDEN: Chief of Staff Reimer disagrees. He says the U.S. Army is tasked to be able to fight two wars simultaneously, and disputes the assertion that too much money is being spent on new technology.
GENERAL REIMER: If you look at it, about 20 percent of our budget - 21 percent to be precise in the last few years has gone into technology and modernization. We realize that in order to make sure that these people who are serving that army today, when they get into the 21st century, that they have the best equipment and the best weapons systems in the world like we do today. We had to beef up that modernization account a little bit. So I would reject that argument that we're spending too much on technology and too much on weapons systems at the expense of people.
TOM BEARDEN: While policymakers debate priorities, maneuvers at the National Training Center and at other military bases around the world continue. And units like the third brigade do what the U.S. Army has always done -- try to do the best they can with what they have.