On July 26, congressional Democrats revealed that a full two-thirds of the active U.S. Army is officially classified as “not ready for combat.” The head of the National Guard responded to the news with a troubling announcement of his own: The National Guard is “in an even more dire situation than the active Army but both have the same symptoms; I just have a higher fever.” But–in spite of the fact that the Army has almost no nondeployed combat-ready brigades at its disposal–military deterioration has not become a campaign issue the way it did in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Six years ago, George W. Bush and the congressional leadership repeatedly attacked the Clinton administration for both underfunding and overusing U.S. ground forces in places like Bosnia and Haiti. While such charges conveniently overlooked the fact that Bill Clinton’s defense budgets were in fact $2 billion more than the final George H.W. Bush defense plan for 1994-1999, they achieved their purpose nevertheless. Bush’s oft-repeated campaign promise that “help is on the way” for the men and women in uniform elevated his standing in military circles. A slew of retired generals and admirals publicly endorsed the Bush-Cheney ticket, with some hinting that the Clinton administration had jeopardized our national security through neglect of the Armed Forces. The new Bush administration, they believed, would restore the military’s cold war prowess.
Yet, rather than providing help, the Bush administration’s strategic miscalculations and gross mismanagement of resources have pushed the all-volunteer force perilously close to its breaking point. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has refused to reconsider his pre-September 11 commitment to transform the Army into a smaller and more agile fighting force, even though one clear lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan has been that the Army is suffering more from manpower deficiencies than from the absence of high-tech weaponry. Pentagon officials have lately sought to emphasize the positive–the Army is currently meeting its 2006 recruiting and retention goals, and the readiness levels for forces in combat in Iraq remain stable–but this neglects the underlying reality. The responsibility of Bush and the Republican Congress is to ensure that, even during war, the all-volunteer military is ready for future combat. They are currently failing to do so.
Even though many neoconservatives are loudly calling for new military engagements, the simple fact is that the United States currently does not have enough troops who are ready and available for missions in Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else. It is not only that so many of our soldiers are committed to Iraq, but also that even those not in Iraq have yet to be adequately resupplied or prepared for further deployment.
Combat-readiness worldwide has deteriorated due to the increased stress on the Army’s and the Marines’ equipment. The equipment in Iraq is wearing out at four to nine times the normal peacetime rate because of combat losses and harsh operating conditions. The total Army–active and reserve–now faces at least a $50 billion equipment shortfall. To ensure that the troops in Iraq have the equipment they need, the services have been compelled to send over equipment from their nondeployed and reserve units, such as National Guard units in Louisiana and Mississippi. Without equipment, it’s extremely difficult for nondeployed units to train for combat. Thus, one of the hidden effects of the Iraq war is that even the troops not currently committed to Iraq are weakened because of it.
The Marine Corps, America’s emergency expeditionary force, is also under unprecedented strain. The Marines have compensated for equipment shortfalls in Iraq by drawing down their pre-positioned reserve equipment stocks in the Pacific and Europe by up to 70 percent. These stocks include things like tanks and armored vehicles that enable the Marines to respond rapidly to crises around the world without the logistical delay associated with major long-range equipment transport. The Marines are also running out of helicopters, including the essential heavy-lift CH-53E Super Stallion. They are down to 150 CH-53Es from the required 160 and will continue to lose these helicopters due to their heavy use in Iraq. With the replacement for this aging helicopter still more than a decade off, this is a problem that will be hamper Marine readiness for years to come.
But the decline in equipment readiness is nothing compared with the growing manpower crisis. The Army is trying to keep the dam from breaking, but it is running out of fingers and toes. After failing to meet its recruitment target for 2005, the Army raised the maximum age for enlistment from 35 to 40 in January–only to find it necessary to raise it to 42 in June. Basic training, which has, for decades, been an important tool for testing the mettle of recruits, has increasingly become a rubber-stamping ritual. Through the first six months of 2006, only 7.6 percent of new recruits failed basic training, down from 18.1 percent in May 2005.
Alarmingly, this drop in boot camp attrition coincides with a lowering of recruitment standards. The number of Army recruits who scored below average on its aptitude test doubled in 2005, and the Army has doubled the number of non-high school graduates it can enlist this year. Even as more allowances are made, the Government Accountability Office reported that allegations and substantiated claims of recruiter wrongdoing have increased by 50 percent. In May, for example, the Army signed up an autistic man to become a cavalry scout.
The strains on the military are beginning to show. In July, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that thousands of white supremacists may have been able to infiltrate the military due to pressure from recruitment shortfalls. Private Steven Green, the soldier arrested for his alleged role in the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her family, was allowed to join the Army despite legal, educational, and psychological problems. Green didn’t graduate from high school and had been arrested several times.
In the words of Bob Dole, “Where is the outrage?” It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what Republicans would be saying if the Armed Forces were suffering from such neglect in a Kerry administration. They would be howling mercilessly–joined no doubt by former generals and admirals–that Democrats had compromised national security through mismanagement and neglect. And they would be right. Unfortunately, the current state of the Army and the Marines has yet to become the rallying cry this election season. It should.