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Readiness of U.S. Armed Forces
29 September 1998 -
Senate Armed Services Committee
General Henry Shelton
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Mr. Chairman and distinguished senators:
I am honored to appear again before this committee, along with the
other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to give you our assessment
of the readiness of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Let me put the bottom line up front. As I told the President two weeks
ago, and as I have previously testified before this committee, we have
great armed forces today. They are ready to execute the national
military strategy, including two overlapping major theater wars, while
continuing to meet our many security obligations around the world. We
can all be enormously proud of the outstanding job our young men and
women in uniform are doing every day in support of our nation's global
interests, responsibilities, and commitments.
But, I must also note up front that our forces are showing increasing
signs of serious wear. Anecdotal and now measurable evidence indicates
that our current readiness is fraying and that the long-term health of
the Total Force is in jeopardy. In a few moments, each of the service
chiefs will discuss the challenges with which each of them has been
grappling. I would like to take a few minutes at the outset to provide
my assessment as a backdrop for their remarks and to highlight what I
believe should be our priorities as we strive to maintain the world's
finest military force.
First, let me point out that our recent readiness shortfalls are the
result of the Fiscal Year 1998 budget and of some unanticipated
factors that I will discuss in a moment.
We have known for several years that 1998 would be tough and that our
commanders would face an enormous challenge balancing the competing
priorities of maintaining current readiness, taking care of our
people, and providing for future readiness through modernization. It
has not been easy. Although we have successfully maintained the
readiness of our forward deployed and "first-to-fight" forces, it has
not been without cost to the rest of the force.
There have been several unanticipated factors that have made our
efforts to maintain current readiness in 1998 even more challenging
than we expected:
First, the U.S. military has been far busier than we anticipated just
18 months ago when we completed the Quadrennial Defense Review. From
continuing operations in Bosnia, Haiti, and the Persian Gulf, to
conducting contingency operations like noncombatant evacuations in
Albania and Africa, the demand for U.S. military presence and
capabilities has been very high.
Second, the higher-than-expected operational tempo has also meant
higher-than-anticipated wear on equipment. This, combined with
significant increases in the cost of repair parts, has produced
shortages of spare parts and maintenance backlogs.
Third, there also have been unit, personnel, and base reductions, as
well as some privatization initiatives that were programmed but could
not be carried out as planned.
Fourth, after the services and DOD (Department of Defense) carefully
shaped the defense budget to balance our competing requirements, "fine
tuning" it to get just the "right mix," the Congress, with the best of
intentions, moved some things forward and added some items that were
not requested. This altered the delicate balance and created
shortfalls in other areas that caused problems for us.
Finally, the "good news" regarding our nation's continuing strong
economy has been "bad news" for our recruiting and retention. We have
struggled to recruit bright young people and to keep them from opting
for higher paying jobs in the private sector after completing their
If these trends and constraints continue into 1999, and some
undoubtedly will, we will certainly face some difficult decisions
again in balancing current readiness against modernization, against
maintenance of our operational infrastructure, and against taking care
of our people. In short, without relief we will see a continuation of
the downward trends in current readiness, from decreased mission
capable rates for aircraft to depot maintenance backlogs and
shortfalls in critical skills -- the whole range of problems that have
become apparent in the second half of this fiscal year.
Of course, the impact of these factors on current readiness in the
coming year will be dramatically compounded if we do not receive the
additional supplemental funds requested for Bosnia and for our
vigorous response to the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in East
As I said earlier, the chiefs will provide insights on their
service-specific challenges in a moment. But before we get to that I
want to address one final issue, one that is critical to both our
current readiness and our future readiness -- the enormous challenge
we all face in sustaining the superb quality of the people in our
military today.
We have spoken a great deal about the challenge of "balancing"
competing requirements: readiness, modernization, and taking care of
our people and their families. It is clear to me that the time has
come to send a strong signal to the men and women of the U.S. military
that we will not ask them to bear the burden of that "balancing."
In our recent efforts to "balance" these important and competing
requirements we have allowed the pay of our soldiers, sailors, airmen,
and marines to fall well behind that of their civilian counterparts.
One can argue about how large the pay gap is depending on the
base-year selected, but the estimates range from 8.5 percent to 13.5
percent. Few deny that the gap is real.
Another key factor seriously affecting our force today is the
different retirement system for the most junior two-thirds of the
force. In 1986, Congress changed the Armed Forces retirement system to
one that is increasingly perceived by our military members as simply
not good enough to justify making a career of military service.
If we fail to address these critical personnel issues, we will put at
risk one of our greatest achievements of the last quarter century: the
All-Volunteer Force.
It is the quality of the men and women who serve that sets the U.S.
military apart from all potential adversaries. These talented people
are the ones who won the Cold War and ensured our victory in Operation
Desert Storm. These dedicated professionals make it possible for the
United States to accomplish the many missions we are called on to
perform around the world every single day.
Mr. Chairman, in the letter in which you invited me to come here today
you asked me to consider what my priorities would be if additional
funding was made available for defense in the coming fiscal year (FY
99) and beyond.
As I have said, we may well face some continued serious shortfalls in
our current readiness accounts even with the increased funds provided
for Fiscal Year 1999. And as I noted in my letter to you on 23
September, the Bosnia emergency funding and the additional money
needed for our readiness accounts are very important. But if I had to
choose the area of greatest concern to me, I would say that we need to
put additional dollars into taking care of our most important
resource, the uniformed members of the Armed Forces.
The best tanks, planes, and ships in the world are not what make our
military the superb force that it is today. They are great
multipliers. Advanced technology and modern weapons systems are
important, for sure, and that's why we continue to support additional
BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) rounds to help finance future
modernization programs. But even the finest high-tech equipment will
never be the determining factor on the battlefield.
The most critical element of both current and future readiness is the
men and women we are privileged to have serving in uniform today. Our
people are more important than hardware. We must do whatever is
necessary to sustain the quality of our people because quality is more
important than quantity.
We already see troubling signs that we are not on the path to success
in that effort. Our retention rates are falling, particularly in some
of our most critical skills, like aviation and electronics, the very
skills that are in demand in our vibrant economy. And we are having to
work much harder to attract the motivated, well-educated young people
we need to operate our increasingly complex systems.
So, Mr. Chairman, my recommendation is to apply additional funding to
two very real, very pressing concerns. First, we need to fix the
so-called REDUX (referring to the 1996 Retirement Revision Act)
retirement system and return the bulk of our force to the program that
covers our more senior members -- that is, a retirement program that
provides 50 percent of average base pay upon completion of 20 years of
service. Second, we must begin to close the substantial gap between
what we pay our men and women in uniform and what their civilian
counterparts with similar skills, training, and education are earning.
As I said earlier, there are differing estimates about the magnitude
of the pay gap and there are several timelines that could be
considered for closing that gap. But we must act soon to send a clear
signal to the backbone of our military -- our mid-grade commissioned
and non-commissioned officers. We must demonstrate also that their
leadership and this Congress recognize the value of their service and
their sacrifice, and that we have not lost sight of our commitment to
the success of the All-Volunteer Force.
Mr. Chairman, this Congress has already taken an important first step
in this process by supporting a 3.6 percent pay adjustment for the
military in 1999, preventing the pay gap from growing wider still. The
President has pledged support for a 4.4 percent pay raise in the
Fiscal Year 2000 budget and for adjustments in subsequent years at the
ECI (Employment Cost Index) rate to at least prevent further widening
of the pay gap.
I assure you, Mr. Chairman, that the troops and their families
appreciate this very much; but, as I have noted, that will not be
enough. As we develop the Fiscal Year 2000 budget proposal, we will
take a hard look at what must be done on core compensation issues such
as pay and retirement to maintain the quality of the people in the
military. No task is more important.
As a follow-up to his meeting with the Joint Chiefs and the Unified
Commanders earlier this month, the President sent a letter to
Secretary (of Defense William) Cohen directing the department to work
with the Office of Management and Budget to identify requirements for
increased defense spending in Fiscal Year 2000 and beyond. Secretary
Cohen and I, together with the other Joint Chiefs and the service
secretaries, look forward to working with the White House, with this
committee, and with the Congress as a whole to ensure we have the
right program and sufficient funding to provide for the long-term
health and readiness of the American armed forces into the next
Right now the force is fundamentally sound, but the warning signals
cannot and should not be ignored. Let me use an aviation analogy to
describe our current situation. In my view, we have "nosed over" and
our readiness is descending. I believe that with the support of the
administration and Congress, we should apply corrective action now. We
must "pull back on the stick" and begin to climb before we find
ourselves in a nose dive that might cause irreparable damage to this
great force we have created, a nose dive that will take years to pull
out of.
Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to share my views with the
committee, and I look forward to answering the Committee's questions
later in the session.
Thank you.
(end text)

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