Service Chiefs Detail Readiness Concerns
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 1998 Operations tempo, delayed replacements and recruiting and retention problems are all affecting military readiness, the service chiefs told the Senate Armed Service Committee Sept. 29.
Fixing the problems will require money, and all the chiefs insist any money Congress provides should go first toward keeping the quality of the men and women in uniform high.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer said Congress and DoD leadership must send a signal that the country appreciates the sacrifices soldiers and their families make. If they don't, he predicted, soldiers will vote with their feet.
Reimer said the Army has had to borrow from operations and maintenance funds to pay for ongoing operations. This has led to fewer flying hours and fewer vehicle-training miles for tankers and mechanized infantrymen.
Soldiers are also concerned about the current military retirement plan that went into effect in 1986, he said. The first soldiers affected by the plan are midway to retirement, Reimer said, and many find their future retired pay won't be as much as they've been thinking.
Retired pay in the post-1986 plan starts at 40 percent of base pay at 20 years of service. Members who joined before the plan took effect are grandfathered in a system that starts at 50 percent in 20 years. In both systems, though, base pay is that part earned strictly for rank and service time and is fully taxable -- paycheck-boosting special pays and tax-free allowances don't figure in computing retired pay.
Reimer said soldiers are also concerned about what they perceive to be eroding medical benefits. "They're making career decisions about whether that medical benefit will be there when they get to [age 65]."
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak told the committee he has been saying for four years that the Corps is keeping near-term readiness high at the expense of long-term readiness. This has forced the Corps to short-change modernization, infrastructure and quality-of-life accounts, he said.
Delaying modernization also affects near-term readiness. "Much of our equipment has aged beyond its projected service life," he said. "It breaks down more often and requires an extraordinary maintenance effort from these magnificent Marines to keep it running.
"Where we once replaced simple parts, such as brake shoes, we now find ourselves replacing entire brake assemblies," he said. This means spending more money and time to keep things usable, Krulak said, adding that Marines have the same problems with antiquated infrastructure.
"If we choose to focus solely on the symptoms of degraded readiness today and put our money into operations and maintenance accounts, I am afraid that we will merely scrape off the skin cancer of short-term readiness and allow our long-term readiness cancer to metastasize," the commandant said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson said personnel shortages are degrading the Navy's deployed readiness. The Navy will miss its fiscal 1998 recruiting goals by 7,000 sailors, he said. Readiness in nondeployed units is even worse, he added.
"For example, our air carrier wings: Their non-deployed readiness is the lowest it's been in a decade," Johnson said. Shortages of personnel and aircraft parts contributed to a Navy aircraft mishap rate nearly double fiscal 1997's, he said. The rate includes incidents involving the loss of life, total loss of an aircraft, or damages exceeding $1 million.
"We are paying for today's readiness with our future," Johnson said. "With readiness a top priority and a flat 'top line' [defense budget], the Navy bill payers have been modernization, infrastructure and procurement."
He said the backlog in filling Navy infrastructure needs is $2.5 billion now and, if unchanged, will pass $4 billion by fiscal 2002. He said there will be at least a four-ship backlog by fiscal 2005.
In the people arena, Johnson said, he is concerned about retaining aviation personnel, surface warfare officers, submarine officers and special operations SEALs.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan said his service's readiness is slipping due to an aging fleet, operations tempo and funding. Pilot retention is the biggest concern: The service is 700 pilots short and will be 2,000 short by fiscal 2002 if recruiting and retention trends continue. The Air Force, he said, is also losing highly qualified enlisted members, especially avionics specialists and crew chiefs.
"If we do not reverse these trends through substantial and sustained funding of our forces, our concern that's expressed today, I believe, will rapidly turn into a readiness crisis," Ryan said.
"I have been in a hollow Army," said Army Chief Reimer. "I have done that, got the T-shirt, and I don't want to go back. It is not a pleasant scene. ... I must tell you ... that if we don't do something, we run the risk of returning to the hollow Army or ... run the risk of not being able to execute the National Military Strategy."