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Is the U.S. military ready? Texas Gov. and Republican presidential nominee George Bush brought this important issue into the political spotlight at the Republican convention, when he criticized the administration of President Bill Clinton and, by implication, vice president and Democratic nominee Al Gore, for allowing U.S. military forces to deteriorate badly during its watch. Democrats have denied the allegations, and claimed that the U.S. military has never been finer. Where does the truth lie?

A fair assessment must conclude that today’s U.S. armed forces are excellent — hardly the “hollow force” that characterized the early years after the Vietnam War, as is sometimes alleged by Republican critics. On the whole, the Clinton stewardship of the military has been reasonably good. But whether it has been good enough is a subjective matter that can and should be debated in the campaign.

Republicans are right that today’s military, unit for unit, is not as healthy as the military of a decade ago. Equipment on average is not quite as serviceable; for example, 85 percent of military aircraft were typically “mission capable” at any one time in the early 1990s, whereas today the average figure is closer to 75 percent. Weapons are also getting older; many will soon need replacing. Troops are working harder, largely because of long-standing and demanding deployments in places such as the Balkans and the Persian Gulf. As a result, their morale is not as good as it was during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. As morale slips, recruiting as well as retention of experienced troops and officers becomes harder — placing the country’s long-term ability to maintain a top-notch volunteer force in some jeopardy.

But Democrats have plenty of facts with which they can counter those charges. Today’s military may not be quite as strong as the force that won Desert Storm, but it measures up well against President Ronald Reagan’s military. Whether one considers training levels, equipment readiness, experience and aptitude levels of troops, or most other objective measures of preparedness, things look as good (or better) today as in 1985. The military’s excellent performance in Balkans peacekeeping missions, Persian Gulf no-fly zone operations, and last year’s air war against Serbia has been simply outstanding. Recent pay raises and policy changes designed to reduce strains on troops have improved morale. Recruitment and retention are going well this year, and the services are likely to meet their main targets this year, despite competition for good people from a strong economy.

Democrats can also argue that the downsizing of the military undertaken under Clinton and Gore — which cut personnel by about 15 percent more than President George Bush had planned — contributed to reducing the deficit and strengthening the economy. If there were down sides to such additional cuts, there were also major benefits that leave the country economically stronger and more prosperous. Republicans claim today’s smaller force might have a hard time defeating both Iraq and North Korea in all-out wars at the same time, should that be necessary.

Meanwhile, both sides are wrestling with how to address new threats to U.S. security. Republicans tend to emphasize the need for National Missile Defense against the possible acquisition of long-range ICBMs and nuclear weapons by countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. The Clinton administration also favors missile defense — but wants to make every effort not to deploy a system that would so enrage Moscow that it would terminate cooperative U.S.-Russian programs intended to secure and downsize Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal.

Who is right in this debate? Since it is at least partly a matter of political values, there is no definitive answer. I would give the edge to the Democrats. The bottom line is that the U.S. military today is truly outstanding, as world leaders virtually everywhere recognize, and has been demonstrated in all important missions throughout the 1990s. (Even in the 1993 Somalia tragedy, when 18 soldiers lost their lives in one night of fighting, troops performed well; it was the Clinton administration that made the mistakes leading to that debacle.)

Even though Bush has decried the administration’s tendency to deploy forces around the world, by far the most sustained and difficult deployments have been in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. The first began under a Republican administration, and neither party has come up with good alternatives for containing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The second has been a result of Clinton’s policies. But since the alternative was to let ethnic cleansing and genocide go unchecked in late 20th-century Europe, right on the borders of several important U.S. allies, there was really no acceptable alternative. The Bush administration tried disengagement in 1992, and that policy failed.

Nonetheless, it is to Bush’s credit that he is raising these issues. And it is largely to the credit of Republicans in Congress that military pay raises have been approved. Leaving aside some of the overheated hyperbole from Philadelphia, U.S. defense policy is an important issue for this year’s presidential debate.

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