Strung Out

Sept. 1, 1998

As a usual thing, it is senior officers and Pentagon officials who testify to Congress, but last March, the House National Security Subcommittee on Military Readiness wanted to get closer to the situation. Accordingly, the subcommittee moved its hearing out to the field and called on senior NCOs from operational units to speak.

Among those testifying was MSgt. Eugene D. Mehaffy, a C-5 flight engineer from Travis AFB, Calif. He described the grueling pace of long duty shifts and one contingency deployment after another, made worse by problems en route with refueling, repairs to the aircraft, crew billeting, and meals–because at almost every stop along the way, the support personnel are also overworked and short of resources.

The slogans can talk about “doing more with less” to overcome he force cuts and budget reductions, but Mehaffy said, “I only hope everyone now understands that ‘more with less’ is not going to happen.”

Mehaffy was not alone in his observation. Earlier in the year, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told the Budget Committee that “our defense structure is getting weaker, our equipment is getting obsolete, our troops are stretched too thin.” Deteriorating readiness and mission capable rates have begun to evoke memories of the “hollow force” of the 1970s.

The roots of this problem go back to the summer of 1993. The US armed forces were drawing down toward a “Base Force” configuration. Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration-new in office and with little analysis to determine the feasibility or impact-announced a further and much deeper defense budget cut. The notorious Bottom-Up Review tried to devise a defense program to fit the arbitrarily reduced budget. The eviscerated force thus created did not meet demands of the declared defense strategy.

Concurrently, a “procurement holiday” postponed weapon system purchases. Problems with aging equipment were compounded by insufficient spending on spare parts. Modernization funding was siphoned off to pay for current operations. Then forces and systems were cut again by the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997.

What is not decreasing is the mission. The armed forces are strung out around the world on “Engagement and Enlargement” missions, the end of which may be nowhere in sight. In Southwest Asia, airmen live in tents in the eighth year of a “temporary” mission. US forces were supposed to be gone from Bosnia by 1996. They are still there, and their departure date is said to be “indefinite.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force has reduced its active duty strength by a third and cut its forces stationed abroad by half. Meanwhile, though, contingency deployments have increased by 400 percent. In addition to ongoing operations in Southwest Asia and the Balkans, the Air Force deploys for six or seven “pop-up” contingencies a year.

Until recently, few of us had even heard of “personnel tempo,” a term that has come into constant use to describe the impact of operations tempo on people. “Airmen and their families are telling us they are getting tired of a way of life that cycles between four to six months per year TDY [temporary duty] and 65-hour work weeks when they are back home,” Gen. Patrick K. Gamble, then USAF deputy chief of staff for air and space operations, told Congress in March.

The loss of experienced people hurts. The Air Force expects to be 800 pilots short this year, on track toward a shortage of more than 2,300 pilots by 2002. The Air Force would like to retain 75 percent of its second-term airmen; about half of them are thinking about leaving service. In 1995, less than 10 percent of F-16 crew chiefs were new graduates; by 1999, half of them will be new graduates.

To relieve the operating tempo, the Air Force has curtailed exercises and combat skills competitions. A new concept groups combat and support forces into 10 air expeditionary teams, two of them on call at any time for peacetime contingency deployments. This will help organize the workload in the best way possible and make the schedule stable and predictable.

However, a senior Air Force officer acknowledges that if full-scale regional conflict breaks loose, “all bets are off.” That is a critical point. How would a force that has been struggling to cover the peacetime mission be able to meet its duties in wartime

The assumption has prevailed for too long in the Pentagon and elsewhere that the defense budget cannot be increased–only cut further–and that shortages can be met only by the diversion of funding from other defense programs. That assumption is not shared by a substantial number of senators and congressmen.

In April, for example, House National Security Committee leaders from both parties called for renegotiating the Balanced Budget Act, saying that “short of an unwise retrenchment and overhaul of US national military strategy, fixing the nation’s long-term defense program will require increased defense spending.”

The armed services have been cut too much. It is time to give them the people, the force structure, and the money they need before the operating pressures tear them apart–or before a genuine armed conflict comes along with disastrous consequences.