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analyses: is the u.s. military war-ready? In September 2000, the nation's military leaders--the Joint Chiefs of Staff--told Congress that U.S. troops are in danger of losing their military pre-eminence unless the next president adds  tens of billions of dollars to the defense budget or sets a less ambitious agenda for using the military in hot spots around the world.

excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with
chuck spinney  |  richard cheney  |  frederick w. kagan  |  andrew f. krepinevich, jr.  |  john hillen  |  ralph peters  |  general eric k. shinseki
Chuck Spinney

An analyst in the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, he's been an outspoken critic of military spending issues dating back to the early years of the Reagan administration. He authors an email column that is widely disseminated within and outside the Pentagon.

read his full interview >

The readiness issue has become an issue during this 2000 campaign. George Bush has made it a big part of his platform. Is there a readiness problem?

The answer is that it's a compound question. The answer is yes, there is a significant readiness problem out there. And it is fair to say that these problems developed during the Clinton administration. But it's also fair to say that decisions were made in the early 1990s that put the Pentagon on an evolutionary pathway to these readiness problems.

So it's no one administration's fault. The difference between administrations in causing the defense problems is miniscule. This is a structural problem that has built up over a long period of time. The end of the Cold War has given us a heaven-sent opportunity to correct these problems before the increased cost of Social Security and Medicare slam into us around 2010 or so. But we have squandered one decade already, and it's beginning to look like we're setting ourselves up to squander another decade.

What, specifically, are the kinds of readiness problems?

If we look at readiness problems in terms of hardware, there are shortages of spare parts; aging equipment; increasing workload because of the need to cannibalize spare parts--taking them off one weapon, putting them onto another--text manuals are getting outdated; things of that sort. If we look at the people component of readiness, which is far more important than the material component of readiness, what we see are declining retention rates, and recruiting problems.

But the most serious problem, in my mind, is something that I've been collecting anecdotal data on for the last three or four years now. And that's what I call "the widening wedge of mistrust" between the junior officers and NCOs on the one hand, and the senior officers on the other. Basically, there's a growing feeling amongst the juniors that the seniors are not dealing with these problems--that, in fact, they're putting their own interests ahead of the welfare of the services and their subordinates' interests.

This is a very serious problem. A military that feels like that, when it's put under any kind of stress, will crack like an egg. And if we go back to the meltdown of the military in the 1970s, I don't recall that kind of wedge existing to the extent that it does today. So in that sense, what we're seeing today may be worse than what we saw in the 1970s.
Richard Cheney

He served as Secretary of Defense in the George H. Bush administration, 1988-1992 and is the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2000 election.

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In what ways do you feel we have a military in decline that lacks readiness?

There is a lot of evidence out there. Some of it is anecdotal. I talk to a lot of people still on active duty who tell me about the state of affairs internally. When I was running Halliburton, retired senior officers came to work for the company. And I get phone calls. I had one last week from a guy who commanded one of the divisions in Desert Storm and at one point ran the National Training Center in California. He keeps up with what's going on at the National Training Center where we train our tank crews. And they're having real trouble.

I look at the data that's produced by the Defense Department itself. The air force readiness rate went down from 85 percent down to 65 percent. An army report shows that 40 percent of our army helicopters aren't combat ready. I look at the GAO study of 1,000 young officers and enlisted men, with over half of them getting ready to get out because they don't want to stay.

The fact of the matter is that readiness has declined significantly. It's affecting everything. It's affected morale and spare parts and training, and our ability in the future to conduct future conflicts. Most of all, though, as morale declines, it's a corrosive thing in a volunteer force, because we won't be able to retain the kinds of people we have to have if we're going to have a really first-rate military. And that counts for more than money; that counts for more than weapons systems; it goes to the heart of how we defend ourselves as a democracy.

I keep coming back to this notion: people think and say, "Well, it's okay that we don't have the spare parts, because the Russians are in worse shape for spare parts." That's not the point. The point is, if you don't have the spare parts, that young mechanic out there on the flight line who's charged with maintaining that F-15 can't do his job. If you are being deployed on missions that take down the readiness because you're off doing other things, and those missions are not understandable to the troops, and they don't really understand why they're there and what they're doing, that affects morale; they won't reenlist. If you've got the pilot who's not getting the flying hours because the aircraft is not maintained, and he isn't up and ready, he's going to quit and go fly for United.

The whole readiness question isn't just a question of whether we're ready to go to war tomorrow against Russians. It is a question of whether or not you're maintaining the force in a manner that's consistent with the expectations we have for those people who are serving in it. Do they believe we care enough to give them the resources we ask them to do for us? Or are we short-changing the force so much by devoting money to other purposes? Are we misusing the force by committing it in areas where it shouldn't be committed? Eventually, will they come to question the value of their service, and decide not to serve?
Frederick W. Kagan

He teaches military history at West Point and is the co-author of While America Sleeps--Self Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today. He believes the U.S. military is being seriously underfunded and compares America today to England in the 1930s.

read his full interview >

Is there a readiness crisis?

I can't give you a straight answer, since I don't have access to all of the reports. I can tell you that, anecdotally, there seems to be a readiness crisis. If you talk with soldiers, if you read the testimony before the congressional committee on readiness, there seems to be real readiness problem in the army.

Here's the problem with readiness. You only know that when you're not ready when soldiers start dying. For people to make light of the readiness issue is really rather callous, and it really misses the point. It's hard to tell whether you're ready when it's peacetime. A unit that looks real good in peacetime and has figured out the game at NTC and figured out how to go in there and do well can perform abysmally in wartime. You won't know until you try, which means that you have to try as hard as you possible can. Failure to do so is going to involve soldiers being killed who didn't need to be killed.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.

He is executive director of the non-profit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and also served as a member of the National Defense Panel. The Panel was set up in 1997 by the Secretary of Defense to re-evaluate changing military needs in the new post-Cold War environment..

read his full interview >

What do you think of the readiness crisis?

There is no easy formula that one can use to say that the army is ready.

. . . Ready for what? Ready for big wars? Ready for little wars, ready for war in six months, ready for war in two years? So an important issue is how we define what we want to be ready for. Then there's the interrelationship of the services. You can have heavy divisions that are ready to deploy to a threatened area, but if there isn't enough airlift or sealift to get it there, is that true readiness? So it's a complex issue.

Certainly there is reason to be concerned in the army . . . over the issues of army recruitment and army retention. There's growing concern about the army's ability to retain talented young officers. The migration, as I understand it, is away from combat arms and into other supporting arms. There's growing dissatisfaction with the quality of life issues. These are things that speak somewhat to near-term readiness. But they portend problems for readiness over the long term. Readiness degrades gracefully up to a point, and then you reach a kind of snowball effect.

I was in the "hollow army." For example, in my unit, spare parts shortages led to frustration on the part of mechanics and maintenance people, who then left the service. They were replaced by less capable people who misused the existing spare parts we did have. So there was increased frustration on the part of other soldiers. And you get this compounding effect. The great danger the army faces now, as with the other services, is there's a sense that it's on the ragged edge. It's at the point where, if it's not careful, readiness may become more precipitous in terms of a decline. That gets you back to this issue of an unprecedented challenge for the American army. Never before has the American army had to support a US policy of being an active global power, and at the same time transform itself to a different kind of fighting force. These are uncharted waters.

Military revolutions typically bring about not only new forms of operation, but new kinds of military capabilities and a shift in the kinds of military systems that dominate the battlefield. . . . What strikes me as odd is that, to a certain extent, we are moving forward in some areas very aggressively to procure large numbers of systems. Those systems may be dominant today, but they may not be dominant at all tomorrow. In short, they may depreciate very rapidly in value.

A case in point is tactical aviation. Right now, the Defense Department is planning on spending several hundred billion dollars to modernize its short-range tactical air forces. This seems to be a case in extremes of putting the modernization cart before the strategy horse. It seems to me that one would at least want to have some idea of how one we're going to protect these kinds of forces from missile attack over time as they're deployed to fixed forward bases. If the price tag for protecting these kinds of systems also includes massive air and missile defense systems, then maybe there are better and cheaper ways of modernizing our strike forces.
John Hillen

He is a former Army captain and a former staff member of the Commission on National Security, a Congressionally appointed independent committee set up to examine national security issues in the 21st century. He has been a defense policy adviser to the Bush 2000 campaign.

read his full interview >

Do we have a readiness crisis?

If the object of our military is to fight and win quickly and decisively at little cost to ourselves in the two major theater of wars upon which our planning is based, then we do have a readiness problem. Let there be no doubt about it-- the United States military is absolutely not ready for the stated purpose of the United States military. Everybody knows it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has testified about it ad nauseum before Congress. It's true.

And what does that really mean? What it means is that our military does not meet the standards that the computer insists our military needs to fight these two major theater of wars. We don't have enough planes to move stuff from one place to another. We don't have enough soldiers to fill in the charts that the computer says need to be filled in. And we don't have the levels of training proficiency that are required to do these things by the old Cold War standards. So that's clear.

The real question is whether those standards are relevant. I think it's terribly important to be able to beat a North Korea that invades South Korea, or to defeat a Saddam Hussein or counter a move by in Iran, or deter Russia from doing something silly or to contain a growing hostile power in Asia. All of that is very important. But the real question is whether the standards by which we measure the military and its ability to do these things are relevant. That's where I differ; that's where it's changing. . . . And so long as we get wrapped around the axle about meeting Cold War-generated readiness standards or procurement standards or policy standards, we will never be able to move and change for the very different conflicts of the future. So are we ready? No. Not according to the standards. But ready for what? That's the real question. That's the one that needs to be answered.
Ralph Peters

A former Army Lt. Colonel and author of several books on the military, he initially was a skeptic of General Shinseki's efforts to change the Army. He is the author of Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?.

read his full interview >

There's been a readiness crises in the military, and especially in the army, since the mid-1990s. The former army chief of staff, for whatever reason, went to the Hill and lied about readiness. I think what we've seen in the 1990s is a politicization of the service chiefs and the Joint Chiefs overall. The administration's done a good job of picking primarily weak men, which is why Shinseki's such a great surprise. But everybody in the army knew. The people down in the motor pools, at the training ranges, in the battalions and brigades and divisions knew there were shortages of ammunition, of spare parts, or training funds. And yet again and again, the chief and the deputies went to the Hill and said, "Well, everything's pretty good, we could use a little more of this, but we're doing fine, sir." It wasn't true.

And by the way, the great penalty was that junior officers lost trust in their leadership. They knew it wasn't true. Lies were being told. And then a few years ago, the administration gave chiefs permission to tell the truth, and they went to the Hill and said we have a readiness crisis. John McCain and others castigated them because the readiness crisis had been obvious to everybody, except these men who were saying it didn't exist, and now suddenly it did exist.

We do have a readiness crisis. Money has been misspent. We buy F-22s instead of taking care of the troops, buying spare parts, fuel, and training. And good training is what saves you, not the F-22. Yet we are still ready enough for most contingencies for now. But our readiness declines daily. And we're not as ready as we could be. It doesn't mean we can't do the job.

It means there are greater risks. It means that you have a greater risk of not being able to do the mission in a timely manner, of taking more casualties. There's this lust to buy twentieth-century legacy systems, gold-plated aircraft, artillery systems, ships that we absolutely do not need. That will cause casualties. And it's also stealing from the American taxpayer; there's no other word for it.
General Eric K. Shinseki

Appointed Army chief of staff in June 1999, he is calling for an Army transformation that will better prepare it to fight the new 21st century wars. As part of this effort, he wants to put a brigade combat team anywhere in the world in 96 hours, a division in 120 hours and five divisions in 30 days.

read his full interview >

Last year, General Campbell rated the Tenth Mountain Division as C-4: not ready. Was the firestorm over that division and the other unit a real crisis?

The firestorm occurred in Washington. It didn't occur in that unit and it did not occur inside the army. Certainly I think General Campbell will share with you that he felt that he made his assessment, and that his report of C-4 was intended to get the attention of the army. He could not meet the time lines I just described to you, given the current condition of his force. As a result, we addressed his shortfalls to give that capability back to him. It had to do primarily with being able to get quickly out of Bosnia back to home station; getting his unit then trained for a war fight; then deploying on the timelines that he had been asked to meet that war fighting requirement some commander in chief out there expected of him. And when he did his analysis and could not meet it, he raised his hand and said, "I've got a problem." The great virtue in all of this is that you've got a superb young commander, and I think you'll find him to be exactly someone who had the confidence to make that tough call. No one does that willingly, but he did and got our attention and we took care of it.

Read the opening statements from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


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