Readiness Concerns Underscore Cohen Visit to Georgia
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 1998 Concerned that military readiness may be eroding because of spare parts and equipment shortages and sagging retention, Defense Secretary William Cohen began a series of fact-finding field trips Aug. 17 at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.
The visit to Moody enabled Cohen to learn from service members and field commanders what they see as key problems facing the armed forces. He picked Moody because it is home to the 347th Wing, the Air Force's first wing designed for rapid deployment and also one of its most frequently deployed combat units.
Cohen, Air Force Acting Secretary F. Whitten Peters, Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Eric Benken met officers and airmen who candidly told them about training deficiencies and the stress and strain of being asked too many times to deploy overseas. The secretary pledged to better manage military resources and people and, where possible, to reduce the operations tempo.
Brig. Gen. Gene Renuart, wing commander, said retention is down at Moody and called temporary deployments the major culprit -- more than 500 Moody airmen deploy annually, many for more than 120 days. In addition, he said, airmen's highly marketable skills and training attract civilian firms that can guarantee higher pay and greater stability.
"If there are credible signs that we are prepared to deal with these deficiencies, then we can turn around retention fairly quickly," Cohen said. "If it goes unattended to, it can take on a momentum or dynamism of its own, and the erosion will continue unabated."
Among the steps DoD already has taken to resolve readiness issues, he said, is decreasing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region by nearly half, "back to approximately where it was before Saddam Hussein escalated tensions last fall."
The secretary said his goal is to reduce the overall operations tempo, particularly short- and no-notice deployments. He said an Air Force plan to create permanent expeditionary forces is a good example of how DoD is trying to stabilize service members' lives. "I'm determined to make Air Force life more predictable and, when possible, less stressful," he told the Moody airmen.
Cohen said he believes front-line forces are still the most capable in the world, but sustaining a protracted war might be difficult. "We have a very ready military," he said. "Those who are on the front lines -- the first to fight -- are fully capable and ready, but some of the second- and third-tier level people and some of the equipment need to be upgraded."
He saw examples of this at Moody, where eight F-16 Fighting Falcons sat idle, awaiting new engines that aren't available. And where new F-16 pilots couldn't finish upgrade training because there weren't enough aircraft to fly.
And he listened to the discontent of pilots and airmen about frequent deployments that disrupt their careers, training and personal lives. The discontent, he said, "pertains to a series of things as far as people are concerned.
"Some of the people we talked to are leaving because of their deployment schedules, because of what has become for them unpredictable lives, where they find they can't pursue their own goals," Cohen said. "For others, it's a question of compensation, or they may find housing unavailable on base and too expensive off base.
"It's a combination of factors that people look at in terms of whether they want to stay in. All of these factors have to be taken into account when you discuss readiness."
Cohen called the visit to Moody a learning experience. He said he looks forward to visits with other services and installations and believes the current readiness deficiencies are temporary and will be fixed. He is scheduled to conduct similar visits to the Army's Fort Drum, N.Y., on Sept. 2 and to Navy and Marine Corps installations later this year.