As Colonel Charles Beckwith last week continued giving evidence about the failure of his com-
mandos to rescue the Tehran hostages, it mattered little that he did so behind the locked doors of the Senate armed services committee. In the words of former defence secretary James Schlesinger: “Any military operation will be a microcosm of the over-all defence establishment,” and the very fact that three out of eight helicopters malfunctioned has concentrated the minds of the president, Pentagon and Congress on the general state of U.S. preparedness.
The answers were not at all reassuring. A flood of reports, leaks of reports and leaks of leaks—some of them emanating from commanding officers anxious to show that the Pentagon, not they, were at fault; others from the Pentagon itself, eager to prove, before the going got too rough, that it was all down to the politicians; and some, from the politicians, passing the buck to the public-conveyed the picture of a military machine not far from the point of breakdown.
One of the major leaks concerned what is rapidly becoming known as the “rusty weapon scandal.” Pentagon sources revealed that Vice-Admiral George Kinnear, who commands seven aircraft carriers and 1,800 planes, had told his chiefs back in Washington that
only slightly more than half his F-14 Tomcat fighters and F-25 Eagles were certified as able to fly peacetime missions. The others were awaiting repairs because, said Kinnear, the Pentagon had concentrated on buying new aircraft rather than providing funds to repair existing equipment.
Kinnear’s criticisms were supported by the ranking Republican congressmen on the House defence appropriations subcommittee, who produced evidence that while the U.S. Air Force plans to spend twice as much money to buy new tactical aircraft in fiscal 1983 than in fiscal 1975 ($8.4 billion), not a single extra cent is budgeted to keep the planes flying.
Senior Pentagon officials were quick to point out to selected Washington reporters that, over the past five years, Congress has cut administration requests for operating and maintenance funds by varying amounts—nearly $2 billion in 1975, just less than $1 billion for this year—because, as The New York Times said: “Those funds have no constituency, because they do not have the glamor of new weapons or equipment and do not provide the jobs in the home district.”
Other revelations showed that the state of unreadiness of front-line war planes had a naval parallel. The rate at which U.S. Atlantic fleet warships have been rated unsafe for extended sea operations because of critical shortages of trained men has more than tripled in the past four months, although the tempo of fleet operations is greatly increasing to meet new burdens in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.
An internal study made available to Congress last week showed that the U.S. Navy was short 20,000 petty officers—the most skilled enlisted people— and would be 15,500 short in 1985 even if the ambitious goals for re-enlistments in those categories are achieved. The authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships pointed out this year that the navy will end 1980 with only 528 active combatant ships, compared with 976 at the end of the Vietnam War. Moreover, with the loss of seven Sea Stallion helicopters in Iran, the navy lost almost a quarter of its minesweeping capability, making it impossible, at least in the immediate future, for President Jimmy Carter to go ahead with his threat to mine the Iranian ports.
Of the three services, however, the army is, perhaps, the worst off. The National Guard has 352,000 men and women and the organized reserves have 194,000—180,500 short of the figure Pentagon planners say is the minimum needed for defence. The active army is 767,000 strong, about 10,000 short of the numbers needed simply to keep its bases going. The reasons are low pay and poor conditions. Again, Congress has refused to vote extra funds to improve the situation. Training-equipment also leaves a great deal to be desired. Much of it is far older than the men using it because modern weapons are too expensive for training purposes.
Apart from a lack of funds for maintenance and soldiers to do the work, the Pentagon was also complaining last week about the general standard and quality of what it receives from U.S. industry. A senior army officer cited a recent statement by David T. Kearns, president of Xerox, who wrote: “America’s dismal economic record during the last decade reflects, more than anything else, an astonishing decline in research and development, innovation and productive risk-taking.” Said a naval official: “Look at all the cars that
Detroit has to recall. The stuff we get is no different, even though we pay more for it.”
Back to Schlesinger. The aborting of the Tehran mission, he said, pointed directly to questions of maintenance, equipment age and reliability, and training. “If the United States intends to retain the military capability to fulfil its role as a superpower, it will have to cease the standard budgetary games, and devote more to defence.” Q>
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