In an assessment required by Congress every three months, the Pentagon said the military services are facing training problems, personnel shortages and aging equipment. Even so, it concluded that "America's armed forces remain capable of executing" the military strategy of the Clinton administration.
The report comes amid growing debate between the presidential campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush about whether the Clinton administration has sapped the U.S. military of the strength it needs to maintain the nation's status as the world's lone remaining superpower.
Just last week, Defense Secretary William Cohen disagreed with Bush's assertion that the military is "in decline" and that morale is low.
"Things are on the upswing," Cohen said Aug. 21, noting recent improvements in the services' ability to recruit and retain troops. "While there's always room for improvement, we've got the best in the world."
The latest Pentagon assessment is nearly identical to the one it provided to Congress three months ago, except that it judged the military's readiness against a somewhat more stressing theoretical baselinefighting two major wars at the same time, rather than one war and one small-scale crisis.
Thursday's Pentagon report to Congress was a summary of a classified report and covered the period April-June 2000. It includes an assessment of the Pentagon's ability to execute a notional scenario in the context of U.S. military commitments as of March 15, which included peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, plus Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps air patrols over northern and southern Iraq.
The scenario postulated that war broke out between North and South Korea, followed by war in the Persian Gulf.
The conclusion drawn was that "most major combat and support forces are ready to meet assigned taskings under this scenario, although there are force readiness and capability shortfalls that increase risk in executing operations."
The term "risk" in this context means the risk of not meeting field commanders' timetables for moving forces to a theater of war and executing the war plan. It does not mean the risk of failing to win the war, but rather the risk that longer timelines for starting combat operations would mean higher U.S. casualties.
The assessment said there was a "moderate" risk associated with responding to the first warin Korea, under the scenarioand a "high" risk for the second war, in the Gulf. The report offered no more precise definition of these ratings.
Congress was given more detailed assessments in the classified vesion of the report.
The non-classified report cited several areas of "strategic concern," all related to the military's ability to build up forces where war had broken out and to initiate a counteroffensive. These include shortfalls in mobility and logistics; deficiencies in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; limits in dealing with threats from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, and the vulnerability to cyberattacks.
The report included specific assessments for each service, including:
- Army personnel readiness is a concern. It has shortages in some critical enlisted skills and at the rank of captain, but it has shown recent improvement in retaining soldiers and finding new recruits.
- The Navy's limited aviation equipment is a concern. It would experience shortfalls if its air wings and carriers had to support the second of two nearly simultaneous major theater wars. Also of concern is the availability in sufficient numbers of the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes that jam enemy radars.
- The Marines are meeting their recruiting goals. Its land warfare equipment is ready for operation, but there are questions about its ability to sustain that equipment in the longer term because of aging and corrosion.
- The Air Force faces shortages in many critical job skills. Shortages of spare parts and skill-level mismatches in many personnel areas are creating problems that hurt the Air Force's ability to train.
By ROBERT BURNS