Next administration may face a military dilemma
From readiness to missile defense, Pentagon business faces struggles
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Next to the seemingly endless debate over federal spending priorities -- the standardized clash between fiscal conservatism and "tax-and-spend liberalism" -- perhaps no policy issue better frames the differences between the two major parties than defense.
And the defense gulf has only widened between the parties in the eight years Bill Clinton has occupied the Oval Office.
The military, the majority Republicans in Congress insist, has been subjected to a relentless "drawdown" through Clinton's two-term tenure, resulting in equipment shortages, degradation in service members' quality of life and deep morale troubles.
The Clinton administration's policy of sending American troops to long, involved peacekeeping missions has stretched a severely limited force to its bare limits, they say.
The United States military, still the most powerful the world over, is but a shadow of its former self, according to Republican nominee George W. Bush.
The Texas governor, scion of a former president who was a World War II fighter pilot, one-time head of the Central Intelligence Agency and architect of the 1991 coalition that executed the Gulf War, has campaigned contending that spending on the U.S. defense infrastructure has fallen to perilously low levels.
The military has not been a priority of the Clinton administration, Bush said at his nomination speech in Philadelphia this past summer, and in a speech at that same gathering, former Gulf War commander H. Norman Schwarzkopf even hinted that the Clinton administration has treated the military with disdain while pushing its members to the brink of exhaustion.
To members of the military of all ranks, Bush is fond of saying, "Hold on, help is on the way."
At first blush, Bush might be expected to promote a renewed commitment to the military. The tactic worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he unseated a Democratic administration perceived as weak on defense, and much of Bush's core support -- conservatives, men, veterans and other sub-sections of the senior population -- favor anything that will boost the outlook and prospects of service members.
The Republican nominee supports an increase in defense spending that would include a $1 billion hike in service member pay, and would extract some $45 billion from the federal budget surplus to refurbish military housing, stock up on spare parts and new equipment, and resupply front-line as well as reserve units.
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The nation's military, Bush has said on the stump, must be reformulated from the ground up. Combat units, Bush told a veterans' group in Fairborn, Ohio, at the beginning of September, must be faster, more lethal and harder to find.
The sort of massive deployment undertaken prior to the start of Desert Storm in 1991, Bush has said, will not suit the post-Cold War world.
To that end, Bush supports spending an additional $20 billion on research and development for post-Cold War weapons systems. It is time, Bush has said, for a president to pay close attention to the recommendations of the "planners" in the Pentagon.
Similarly, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, supports increases in defense spending, including increases in military pay and housing. Earlier this month, the Gore campaign said the vice president would dedicate some $100 billion of the surplus to defense.
Gore has called for expanded use of the Quadrennial Defense Review to set a course for military strategy and to design an adequate force structure -- and to accompany that effort, Gore seeks to streamline the operations of the Defense Department.
The vice president also supports continued investment in technology and defense industries, arguing that the private sector should be charged with providing the military with innovative, cost-conscious technologies.
But is this just about money?
A funny thing happened as Bush and Gore made their separate ways toward Tuesday's first debate in Boston. The Joint Chiefs spoke up, and let fly one head-turning fact.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Wednesday that the Pentagon's budget for procurement of new weapons -- currently some $60 billion a year -- is inadequate.
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But $60 billion is the most money ever appropriated to the Pentagon for new weapons systems.
"I do not have the specific dollar figure today," Shelton told senators, "but in succeeding months that answer should become clearer. But one thing I think is obvious is that $60 billion will not be enough to get the job done, given our current strategy and force structure."
The lesson for the next president would seem to be quite clear: Throwing money at the Pentagon will only achieve so much -- even if the Pentagon continues to ask for more. The culture, the long-term strategy, the mindset of the nation's defense structure is likely in need of overhaul.
"Current readiness is problematical, but future readiness is in serious trouble," said Joseph J. Collins, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"In the last decade, we have spent a lot to keep our force busy and ready, but we have not spent nearly enough on modernization, personnel, and facilities," Collins said. "The next administration will face tough choices as it tries to maintain current readiness, replace old equipment, and modernize all at the same time.
"In all likelihood, it will have to spend more and at the same time make significant, politically sensitive cuts in the basing infrastructure and the purchase of new systems," Collins said.
If what Collins suggests is true, the long-term goals of the military will have to be assessed. In the years leading up to the Gulf War, as the last dangers of the Cold War melted and then evaporated, the military was designed and intended to conduct full-scale operations on two separate fronts.
As readiness was challenged by funding cuts and peacekeeping deployments, experts, including higher-ups inside the military, determined that the two-front war strategy would be impossible to maintain. Many argued that a single-front conflict would be difficult to sustain.
Bush and Gore have each offered limited plans to affect change in the four services, but neither has articulated a vision of just what the military should be expected to accomplish in the next decade and beyond.
George W. Bush addresses military readiness levels (9-7-00
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Bush has spoken of revamping combat-ready units with new technologies and mobility, saying such a force would act as a deterrent.
"The mission of the U.S. military will be to train in order to fight and win war, therefore, preventing war from happening in the first place," Bush said last month. And the military, Bush has hinted, would cease to be a tool of diplomacy should he claim the presidency. He has said that, as president, he would would order an immediate review of overseas deployments to ensure that they have clear objectives.
Gore's intentions are similarly murky. While the vice president does not often outline defense details on the stump, his Web site says he seeks to establish an "information age" military "that fully exploits America's strategic advantages in people and technology and meets the range of international challenges that the U.S. faces in a global era.
Either way, it seems inevitable that the new will clash with the old in the long halls of the Pentagon the when the next administration settles in. That battle is already taking place in one arena -- dominated by calls for a national ballistic missile defense system.
Ballistics missile defense endeavors are regarded by some as the last true holdover of the Cold War era. The Reagan administration mounted its massive Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research and development effort -- dubbed "Star Wars" by Democratic opponents in Congress -- to create a robust defense system capable of destroying incoming nuclear missiles as they entered the atmosphere over their intended targets.
Anti-ballistic missile systems have come and gone in various forms over the course of the last 15 years, with new designs introduced periodically to keep pace with the dizzying geopolitical changes the globe has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Missile defense has fallen down the Pentagon's list of priorities in the last decade as diplomatic and technical hurdles have risen up. The creation of any system to protect the continental United States would certainly abrogate the 1974 Anti-Ballistic Missile accord signed with the Soviets -- and still in effect as Russia maintains a formidable nuclear arsenal.
In addition, recent tests of a variety of interceptor missiles have yielded less than stellar results, prompting President Clinton to delay on a decision to go forward with a missile defense system, leaving it up to the next president to decide what may be best.
Bush has expressed an interest in deployment of both "theater" and national systems at the earliest possible date, and would cancel the ABM treaty with Russia if a new agreement cannot be reached.
Gore, on the other hand, has called for a limited ground-based system, but would not break the 1974 pact with Russia to deploy one.
As technology changes, and as borders and governments continue to change worldwide, the Pentagon must struggle to stay ahead of a series of trends while the issue is debated on the political stage.
Ambassador Henry F. Cooper, chairman of High Frontier Inc., a nonpartisan, non-profit "educational entity," dedicated to the establishment of a national missile defense, sees an immediate need to end the discourse and get to work.
"It should be more of an election issue because most people in the country believe they should be protected, they get angry when they find out that they aren't," Cooper said.
Cooper directed SDI efforts for the administration of former president George Bush, but is just as disdainful of George W. Bush's current position as he was of that of Gore -- this, while acknowledging that he has contacts within the Bush campaign.
"Bush is kicking the can, though he looked earlier like he might be serious about it," Cooper said. "He's talking about waiting and about the feasibility of a system."
The ABM treaty must be abolished, Cooper said, if an effective system is to be founded. "In the nearest term, other than Russia and China, which both have missiles that could hit us, North Korea, Iran, Iraq [pose threats to the United States]."
"Russia and China and North Korea are also selling missile components on the open market," Cooper said.
"I suppose they aren't talking about it because it would be very hard to explain," Cooper said, arguing both candidates are avoiding the issue. "I would say to voters, today you're absolutely defenseless, and will be until we change or get rid of the ABM."
"The bottom line is we are not serious, and we had better get serious," Cooper warned. "We don't have another bunch of years to wait."