WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- The Congressional Budget Office says the inventory of the U.S. Army, especially its fleet of ground combat vehicles and armored personnel carriers, continues to shrink, even as the number of combat units has stabilized in the early 21st century.
In addition, while smaller, the inventory continues to grow older, a trend that Army plans will accelerate in future years.
Anecdotal evidence is also not encouraging for readiness. U.S. Army budget materials for 2009 articulate a "goal" of 608 tank training miles -- per tank per year -- for 2009. This would be an increase from the 459 training miles performed in 2008.
This "improvement" should be compared with the tank miles set forth as goals and actually achieved in the past. During the era of President Bill Clinton, from 1993 to 2001, the goal was commonly 800 tank miles; for the most part, the Army did little better than 650. During the previous administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, from 1989 to 1993, the goal was typically 1,000 miles, and 800 was sometimes achieved. In other words, in 2008 tank crews were training at a level less than half of what was considered optimal in the early 1990s.
The U.S. Army asserts today that all units sent to the theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan are "fully ready." However, that is a suspect assertion.
The problem is not what some Democratic critics charge: that because units are not fully trained and equipped for conventional war, they should be considered generally unready. Indeed, the kinds of operations required for the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan -- often now defined as "4th Generation Warfare" -- are wholly different from those considered optimal for conventional war, such as that fought in the first Gulf War in 1991.
In fact, the U.S. Army should be credited for attempting to train for the form of warfare that actually exists, not mostly theoretical constructs such as combat in Europe against the defunct Soviet Union.
The problem, however, is that there are signs that the units sent into combat in Iraq are not fully ready for the type of combat they will face. Training time in the continental United States for unconventional war has been reduced, thanks to the high operating tempo and frequent, recurrent deployments of the same units back to combat after just 12 months of non-deployed time in the United States.
Only a portion of the non-deployed time in the United States is spent retraining for deployment, and -- more importantly -- during that limited training time, units do not always have available to them the proper equipment on which to train.
The soldiers serving in U.S. combat units that operate in Iraq are now afforded only truncated time in which to train together -- whether or not they possess the right equipment -- with new personnel, thereby making it very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the kind of intra- and inter-unit cohesion that the U.S. Army has come to better understand is needed to give soldiers the best chance to survive and prevail in combat.
While the units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan may be officially designated as "ready," those ratings are based on the subjective assessment of unit commanders in a command atmosphere that appears not to welcome "bad news."
(Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)