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Cohen: Readiness Takes Money

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

DOHA, Qatar, Oct. 13, 1998 – When Congress held hearings on military readiness, Capt. Greg Sears was watching and he didn't like what he saw. He wasn't alone.

Sears bluntly complained about the legislators' scolding of senior military commanders for not reporting readiness problems sooner. Defense Secretary William Cohen agreed with the forward-deployed Army officer from Burwell, Nebraska.

"I don't think the chiefs should have taken those incoming rounds," Cohen said. "That's why I went up on [the Hill] Tuesday [Oct. 7], and said, 'If you have anyone to blame, you blame me.'"

A week or so after the Capitol Hill hearings, Cohen stopped at Army Central Command Qatar during a seven-day, six- nation Southwest Asia trip. The site serves as a reception station for U.S. military equipment coming into the country by sea and air.

After touring the facility, Cohen talked up close and personal with about 30 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Sears took his comments and questions on readiness straight to the top. "Was Congress really in the dark about this? And if so, why?" he asked.

Cohen explained that the military's current readiness problems are due to the $250 billion spending cap imposed under the balanced budget. Once the president and Congress agreed on this figure, the secretary said, asking for more money was virtually impossible.

When Congress asked military chiefs if they could do the job within that budget, Cohen said, they replied, "It's a challenge but we can meet it." The military chiefs did as they were asked -- they lived within their budgets, he said.

The Defense Department lived within the budget constraints and tried to "make do," Cohen said. Defense leaders cut the force 36 percent, infrastructure by 20 percent, and adopted a number of operating efficiencies to save money, he said. Congress, however, would not approve two more rounds of base closures, which would have resulted in considerable savings, he added.

Despite these efforts to streamline the military, less money in the defense coffers has resulted in reduced readiness. "What we've found out is, we have a smaller force we're deploying more and more," Cohen said. "So we're overworking that force -- we're straining that force. We've got to make some adjustments."

Reducing operations tempo is one such adjustment, the secretary said. "We need to make sure we don't overutilize our forces. You get deployed, you come back home for a couple of months and then you're back out again. That puts a tremendous amount of stress on you and your family. Therefore, you have pressure to get out."

The new thrust is to ensure service members are deployed only when necessary and that government leaders "resist the temptation to be engaged in every single crisis that emerges," Cohen said. "We can't afford to be in every single engagement. Somebody else has to pick up that slack."

Cohen said the president, Congress and military commanders are now working to improve readiness. President Clinton sent the secretary a letter promising more funds for the fiscal 1999 budget.

"We're looking for at least a billion dollar plus-up in that, and Congress may go even higher," Cohen said. "That shouldn't really be seen as fixing our problems. We've tried to indicate to all concerned that's only a down payment and that we've got to address other shortfalls."

Since the height of the Cold War, for example, procurement spending has dropped by two-thirds, Cohen said. The military has taken procurement money and put it into operations -- this takes care of today, he said, but it sacrifices equipment needed for the future.

The Pentagon is putting money back into procurement and will get up to the $60 billion mark by 2001, Cohen said. The next step is to address issues like pay, retirement, health care -- things that really affect quality of life.

"You'll see a change in the budget submission we're putting together right now," Cohen said. "We finalize it in December and present it to the Hill by late January. I think you'll see some changes there that you'll probably think are somewhat overdue, if not long overdue."

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