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Cohen Addresses Readiness News

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 1999 – Is the military ready to fight or not?

According to the news, two Army divisions aren't ready for war and half the Army's Apache attack helicopters are grounded for repairs; high operations tempo is hurting retention; and public debate over the future of Puerto Rico's Vieques Island has halted Navy combat training there.

While there have been some drains on readiness, America's first-to-fight forces are indeed ready, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in a mid-November interview with American Forces Press Service. "All our forward-deployed forces still are in a very high state of readiness, the highest because they are the ones who may be called upon to go into battle," Cohen said. He acknowledged, however, that peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf, and the latest in East Timor, have taxed America's armed forces.

News stories spotlighted C-4 ratings that commanders of the 10th Mountain and the 1st Infantry divisions gave their units when the Army reported readiness ratings in late October. Cohen said the ratings, the lowest on the scale, did not surprise Pentagon officials, because elements of the divisions are deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Whenever such elements go on peacekeeping missions, the division's warfighting readiness depreciates, Cohen said. When units return from peacekeeping operations, service members need to refresh combat skills that went unused, he added.

"As a last resort, of course, you could always use these forces in an emergency basis, but (military leaders) are going to manage it now so that will not be the case," Cohen noted. "It really is a question of proper management. I think we can deal with it, and will deal with it successfully."

When news media jumped on the ratings story, DoD officials explained that the commanders had lowered their readiness assessments because they were concerned they might not be able to disengage from the Balkans in time to meet major theater war requirements.

The officials said the Army is modifying its reporting procedures to reflect division readiness for units with dual missions -- small-scale contingencies and major theater war requirements. They said DoD is creating a plan to speed up units' retraining and redeployment timeline.

Defense officials plan to use Army National Guardsman more, thereby freeing active duty units for their principal wartime missions. For instance, Virginia's 29th Infantry Division and Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry Division are slated to deploy to Bosnia in October 2001 and October 2002, respectively. Officials are also working to designate substitute units that would deploy in the initial phases of a major conflict in place of those stationed in the Balkans.

Army officials discovered defective power train assemblies in the Apache helicopter and grounded the fleet of 743 on Nov. 5 pending inspections and parts replacements where necessary. Cohen termed the Army's quick, decisive action "a good thing."

"It doesn't mean all of the Apaches are going to have this problem, but it's important that we reduce and minimize any risk to the pilots," he said. "As soon as each aircraft is inspected, they'll go back out. The ones that will get the priority inspections, of course, are the ones that are forward deployed."

Operations tempo -- the intensity and number of operations -- and personnel tempo -- the time a service member spends away from home station -- are affecting overall readiness, Cohen said. Missions in Kosovo, Bosnia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere place high demands on both equipment and people, reducing the tempos are one of his major concerns, he added.

"All the services now are focusing on this," he said. Examples, he noted, are the Air Force's air expeditionary force plan and the Navy's efforts to reduce the number of crew inspections and other activities once ships get back in port.

Military leaders clearly understand high optempo impacts members' family life and are trying to manage it so service members will have more time with their families, Cohen said. "This is the one thing that we constantly talk about at every meeting that we have. When we go to the White House to meet with the president, the chairman and I raise this as an issue in terms of the impact on retention."

The effects of high optempo are of special concern, he said, in high-demand units such as Patriot batteries, reconnaissance and electronic warfare aircraft units and airborne warning and control units. "We're trying to manage, to slow down, the tempo so we don't wear them out," he said.

U.S. forces have been in the Persian Gulf region since Operation Desert Shield in August 1989 and in Bosnia since the Sava River bridge crossing in December 1995. This year, service members added Kosovo and East Timor to their list of ongoing operations. When will these missions end?

"We can't predict an end date," Cohen said. "We try to talk in terms of 'end states.' The chairman and I try to work with the CinCs to bring about a reduction in the size of the force. We're seeing that now in Bosnia, where we used to be at 20,000 and were down to 6,200. We'll see another major reduction in the coming months -- hopefully by March.

"We want to reduce our presence consistent with the security in the region," he explained. "If we reduce it too fast and the security situation has not improved, our troops would be in great danger. We have to balance that. We've seen great improvement now in Bosnia and we hope to see the same thing in Kosovo."

The United States limited its involvement in the East Timor peace mission because of high optempo concerns, Cohen said. U.S. leaders wanted to be responsive and supportive to the Australian-led mission, he said, but given the circumstances, U.S. forces could not take a leading role.

"Initially, stories in the Australian press were quite critical, but the Australian leadership understood it, and they are now satisfied with our role," he noted.

DoD has also successfully reduced the U.S. military presence in Haiti. "We are constantly aware of the pressures we put on our men and women with these deployments," Cohen said. "Some of them are necessary, but once their job is complete, it's important that they get out and that we'll be able to say, 'Yes, there's an end to this. It's not in perpetuity.'"

Cohen labeled the controversy over Navy training at Vieques "a difficult, political issue," that the White House and the Pentagon are working hard to resolve.

Puerto Rico wants to stop live-fire training on the 21- mile-long island, which is home to 9,300 people. In April, two 500-pound bombs dropped by Marine Corps jets hit a range observation tower, killing one person and injuring four others. The Navy has trained on Vieques since 1941, and service officials have said training there is vital to military readiness.

A DoD commission looked into the Vieques situation in October and recommended the Navy reduce live-fire training there by half and ultimately stop training within five years. Puerto Rican officials demand an immediate, total halt.

The commission said the Navy had not been "as good stewards as they should have been in dealing with the people of Vieques," Cohen noted. "We need to do a number of things to correct that and at least have a five-year window in which we can look for alternate means of training our forces."

Cohen said he has discussed Vieques with the Navy and Marine Corps chiefs and the president. The White House and the Pentagon, he said, are trying to impress the importance of military training on Puerto Rican leaders. Sending fighters into battle with less than adequate training would be irresponsible, he said.

"We cannot do that, so we've got to overcome the political opposition," he said. The secretary said he hoped the controversy would be resolved in time for the USS Eisenhower carrier battle group to begin scheduled training at Vieques in December.

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