Hollow Defense Debate Continues to Depart from Reality

September 12, 1998

Comment: #185

Discussion Thread:  184


[1] Readiness-Related Excerpts from DoD News Briefing by Kenneth Bacon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, September 10, 1998. Attached.

In Reference #1, Kenneth Bacon answers questions about readiness at the 10 September DoD news briefing (non-readiness related Q&As have been deleted). Note that the Q&A leads off with General Bramlett's memo [see Reference 2 to Comment #184].

Bacon summarizes the readiness concerns of each service: Air Force - pilot retention and spare parts, Navy - pilot retention and recruiting shortfalls, Army - not enough money for quality of life and training. While these are indeed real readiness issues, there is far more to the readiness problem, for example, aging equipment and complexity-induced cost growth, than is suggested by this overly-simplistic selective regurgitation of past press reports. [New readers who want to learn more about this complex problem can go to the web site "hot-linked below" and scan previous readiness related messages.]

Nevertheless, Bacon's transcript is worth reading, because it contains a few nuggets to keep in mind as the hollow debate to increase the defense budget unfolds during the coming three months.

THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES: The princely oracles of Versailles on the Potomac see a pristine military-technical revolution in their antiseptic computerized wargames but are not empathetic to the worldly conditions affecting the unwashed masses in the field. Bacon's discussion of the different outlooks held by different generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines smacks of this disconnect. Without explicitly saying so, he insinuates these different generations see the same things differently, which implies subliminally that some of these groups do not understand the true readiness situation. He then segues smoothly into the idea the senior group has the more valuable point of view by saying that the Chairman's and Chiefs' analyses show that our "first-to-deploy" forces are well trained and ready to go, we have readiness strains but not a meltdown. While more subtle and gracious, his logic is no different than Admiral Gehman's condescending assertion of the perception gap between the "Big R" and "little r" readiness views held by senior and junior officers [see #129]. One reporter burst Bacon's bubble by pointing out that General Bramlett's memo cited readiness problems in the 3rd Mech and 82nd Airborne Divisions, which are crucial parts of our "first-to-deploy" forces, but it hardly dented his performance. Perhaps, like Admiral Gehman, Mr. Bacon will change his tune in the coming months [see #172 - READINESS: Admiral Gehman Changes His Tune or Why Emperors Lose their Clothes].

RISING COST OF LOW READINESS: Bacon notes that operations and maintenance (O&M) funding per soldier is reduced somewhat from that of two years ago, but it is still higher than it was in 1990 and 1991, when we went to war in the Persian Gulf. Per-capita O&M spending is an input measure, however, and says nothing about outputs. Bacon does not address how we can have readiness strains when per-capita O&M spending is so high. His only solution is to close more bases. As I have indicated in many earlier messages, the causes of rising operating costs have more to do with the consequences of ever-increasing technological complexity and misplaced priorities than with excessive infrastructure, which, in any case, is a consequence of the force reductions brought about by complexity-induced cost growth [see #s 91, 98, 100 for the high cost of operating equipment]. Moreover, Bacon did not address, nor was he asked, why a shortfall of less than 1% of the Army's total budget could result in the dire readiness predictions in General Bramlett's letter.

THE PLAN TO ADD MONEY TO THE DEFENSE TOPLINE: In earlier messages, I described how pro-defense big-spenders in Congress and factions in the Pentagon are already engaged in a battlefield shaping operation to use the readiness problems as an excuse to jack up the defense budget even though we are already spending three times as much as all our potential adversaries combined [see comment #s159, 165, 166, 167, 173, 177, 183, 184, for example]. Recall how George Wilson reported on 21 August that leaders are planning to seek a higher topline for fiscal 2000 and beyond than allowed for in the 1997 congressional budget agreement [#183]. According sources in my rumor mill, the increase could be as high as $60 to $75 billion over the next six years [#184]. : The last two questions in Reference 1 address the prospect of increasing the defense budget and breaking the balanced budget agreement. Note how Bacon refused to confirm or deny the possibility.

Before we add more bloat to the defense budget, the leaders in the Defense Department and Congress ought to make a serious effort to understand the real big picture which is a synthesis of many realistic small pictures. They need these details to understand why we have a modernization program that will not modernize the force, even if the acquisition reforms and base closings produced the savings predicted, and why we have a rapidly deteriorating readiness posture, even though per-capita O&M spending is at near record levels. But to produce the small pictures, they would have to first get into the trenches and clean up our bookkeeping system something they clearly do not want to do, as we saw in Comment #169, "The Constitution, Situational Ethics, & the Phony Debate Over More Defense Spending."

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

DoD News Briefing
Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon,
Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
Thursday, September 10, 1998 - 2:00 p.m.

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. Welcome to the briefing.


Q: The latest piece of anecdotal evidence that we have of the declining state of military readiness is this memo from General Bramlett to the Army Chief talking about problems in maintaining training. I'm just wondering if we can get some sort of reaction to how serious the readiness problem is getting to be?

A: Since we last talked about readiness there's been no appreciable change. The situation is this. The forces at the tip of the spear are ready to do their job, and in fact are doing their job in Korea; they're doing their job in Operation SOUTHERN WATCH in Saudi Arabia; they're doing their job in Bosnia; they're doing their job in Macedonia; they're doing their job in the Sinai; they're doing their job in Haiti; they're doing their job where they've been deployed to do their jobs.

There is growing concern in the military and among the civilian leadership about some readiness problems with follow-on forces. Each service tends to have different concerns.

In the Air Force the concern is primarily pilot retention and spare parts. In the Navy there is some concern about pilot retention, although it's not as bad as in the Air Force, and there is concern about recruiting shortfalls for this year in particular. In the Army there is concern about being unable to invest adequately in quality of life and to maintain enough training days or enough training for some follow-on units.

We believe that the forces are ready to execute the nation's military strategy, and that includes the ability to fight two multi-theater wars simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously. But as a result of the readiness strains the risk of executing this strategy has increased somewhat.

I think the force is -- what you tend to see in the military today, you might have three groups of people, three distinct groups of people. You have a group of senior officers who came into the force in the 1960s and '70s. They came in during the Vietnam era. They lived through the post-Vietnam drawdown and all the problems that the military incurred after Vietnam. They lived through the transition from the draft to the all volunteer force. They lived through what was then called the hollow force.

You have a second group, and this group realizes that although there are reasons to be concerned about readiness in some areas and although there are some strains, that the force today is better educated, better trained, better equipped and better prepared by far than the force 20 years ago. There's no comparison between the force today and the force of 20 years ago.

You have another group of soldiers who came in, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who came in in the 1980s during the Reagan buildup when the money was flowing freely, when the forces were growing. We were buying ships, we were buying tanks, we were buying new planes. They came in in the time of plenty, it was during the Cold War, the end of the Cold War. There was an emphasis that ultimately led to help win the Cold War. They obviously came into a different military than the people who came in in the '60s and '70s. They have a different perception of what adequate resources are.

Then you have another group who came in after the end of the Cold War and after Desert Storm when the drawdown began. As you know, the force has been reduced by 36 percent in terms of personnel since the end of Desert Storm. So these people have lived primarily during an era of drawdown.

Now during that period the operation and maintenance funding per soldier, per capita spending on readiness basically, has risen pretty steadily. It's certainly higher today than it was in 1990 and 1991. It's not as high today per capita as it was a year or two ago.

So you have three generations of people in the military who have different experiences with spending and probably different views of what constitutes readiness.

I think everybody agrees now, and certainly the reports show this, certainly the Chairman's analysis and the Chief's analysis show this, that we believe that the first to deploy forces are well trained and ready and able to do their job. There's some growing concern about the follow-on forces. That is an issue of great concern to Secretary Cohen who has invested in the last few weeks a fair amount of personal time in visiting airmen and soldiers and plans to do more. He's spent a lot of time talking about this with the Chiefs. This will be a primary issue at the CINCs conference next week here in Washington. The CINCs have been preparing readiness assessments in preparation for that conference.

Q: Did you say the first to deploy forces are ready to go, but the forces cited by General Bramlett are the first deployed -- 3rd Mech and 82nd Airborne, part of the contingency forces; and the folks at Fort Irwin are the Pacific reinforcement forces. They are the first to fight.

A: The memo by retired General Bramlett was a memo written by him as the FORSCOM commander for the Army to the Army Chief of Staff. He is fighting, as all commanders should be fighting, for more money as part of an internal budget battle within the Army. It's not surprising that a commander would provide a hard hitting analysis seeking more money. He did, I think, highlight real problems in that memo. One of the issues he identified was that he was taking money from property accounts or infrastructure accounts and quality of life accounts to pay for readiness, and it was getting harder and harder to do this.

I might point out that we do believe that throughout the military we are spending too much money supporting infrastructure we don't need. That's one of the reasons we asked Congress to give us authority for two more BRAC rounds, and it's one of the reasons we need more BRAC rounds so we can cut back unnecessary infrastructure and the cost that that infrastructure imposes on the military. We would like to redirect money from unnecessary or overly costly infrastructure into readiness and into procurement.

But the Bramlett memo was one of a series of memos that were produced during the budget season that lay out problems. They're done to catch the attention of senior people in the service. This one happened to catch the attention of the press as well, and of me as a result. But this is something the Army is sorting out. The Army will now, based on this and other memos, have to make a decision about how much money to request from the Secretary of Defense and ultimately from OMB and the budget deliberations which are ongoing.

Q: The General's memo says funding in fiscal '99 will be below survival. That sounds like more than quality of life. Are you saying that's exaggerating the problem?

A: I don't know whether it's exaggerating the problem or not. I'm saying this is a document generated during an internal budget process. I'm not trying -- I think I've made it very clear that we are not denying that there are readiness issues that have to be addressed. The Secretary is doing that, the Chairman is doing that, the CINCs are doing that and based on the assessment that's ongoing today, decisions will be made about how to allocate money in the next budget cycle to address readiness issues.

We do not deny that there are some readiness strains. We do deny that the readiness strains have reached the point where the U.S. military cannot do its job. We think the U.S. military is well trained, well equipped, and ready to do the job that it's required to do, and in fact is doing that job day in and day out on the seas and in the air and on the ground around the world.

Q: Are you saying then that the Pentagon will be allocating more resources to combat this declining trend in readiness?

A: We already have dedicated more resources to deal with readiness problems. We increased in the QDR readiness spending by a billion dollars. There was another billion dollars added for spare parts after that. We have been addressing readiness problems.

The issue we have today is whether there's enough money to go around to address readiness problems and procurement demands for modernization and quality of life issues and what's become increasingly clear, issues dealing with pay and retirement and medical benefits as well.

So it's a question of figuring out what the priorities are and addressing those priorities in the most rational way.

Q: If the United States military had to mount Operation Desert Storm today, wouldn't there be serious problems doing that?

A: First of all, I think that the person who would have the most serious problem, again, would be Saddam Hussein. His military is sharply much weaker today than it was in 1990 and we are in a much better position to act with strength and speed in the Gulf than they were in 1990. We have, as you know, almost 20,000 people in the Gulf today. We have a very large and robust cruise missile force on station and Navy ships. We have a division's worth of prepositioned armor equipment in the Gulf, and we have planes flying over...

Q: (inaudible)

A: No, but this is an important point. It's an important point that one of the changes that's been made, not just since Desert Storm but also since the Korean crisis in 1994, before we reached the framework agreement, is that the military has taken aggressive actions to increase its ability to respond quickly and with great strength in both the Korean Peninsula and in the Gulf. So we're not talking about the same situation we were talking about in 1990. We have taken a number of steps that make our response much faster and will require much less lift in the early days of any potential conflict than we would have had to do five or eight years ago. So it's comparing apples and oranges.

Q: But the two war strategy is not based on two specific wars, it's based on two unknown contingencies.

For instance, if you had to flow 600,000 troops and a number of ships in Desert Storm, say to handle a contingency in Asia, could you do that today or wouldn't there be problems trying to mount that kind of a force?

A: We do have a much smaller force today. Our force is 36 percent smaller today than it was in 1990 and 1991. But our planning and our exercises show that we can carry out the two war scenario, two nearly simultaneous war scenario, but there is some increased risk. The issue always is how do you balance risk with cost, and that is exactly the question that's being asked by the leaders of this department today.

Q: How would you characterize the Secretary's position on making the case for adding more money to the top line and maybe breaking out of the balanced budget agreement?

A: I'd say he's reviewing what the appropriate budget is. That's what every Secretary does at this time of year.

Q: Is it fair to say he's open to that idea?

A: It's fair to say he's committed to making sure that the military is able to do its job today and in the future.