WASHINGTON—Despite the strains of the Iraq war, the Army today is "vastly better" and more capable now than it was two to eight years ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
"It has much more equipment, much better equipment, and it's better trained and more experienced, and it is a better Army," Rumsfeld said, at a briefing at the Pentagon. "Notwithstanding the fact that it is possible to look at some charts and show that something has changed."
Rumsfeld's remarks came just one day after Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that more than two-thirds of the Army National Guard's brigades are not combat-ready primarily because of a $21 billion shortfall in equipment—most of it lost in the war.
Democrats in Congress are also sounding the alarm, accusing the Bush administration of not providing the Army with enough funds to cover operational demands and equipment losses. The Democrats say that a Bush administration cut of $4.9 billion from the Army's fiscal year 2006 supplemental request seriously undermines the Army's ability to replace equipment lost in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A letter released by Senate Democrats Tuesday from a national security group headed by William J. Perry, a defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said that none of the Army's available combat brigades are ready to deploy because of equipment shortages.
"The bottom line is that our army currently has no ready, strategic reserve," the group said. "Not since the Vietnam era and its aftermath has the Army's readiness been so degraded."
Separately, one defense analyst said Rumsfeld's comments gloss over how badly the war has affected the Army.
"Rumsfeld's assertion that this army is in a high state of readiness is yet another reflection of how detached he is from the realities of his own policies," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Arlington, Va. "Who can believe that this army is ready to take on additional responsibilities in Iran or Korea or any other place where it might be needed?
But Rumsfeld suggested that the problem was all a matter of perception.
"One of the problems we see is that in the readiness charts that are used, we see apples and oranges," he said. "We see a standard on the left side for some years back, and then a standard that's different on the right side."
Some units, he said, may have been judged by readiness standards for missions they were no longer performing.
"If you have a unit that was C-1 for artillery and it was C-4 for the job it's doing in Iraq, that would be bad," he said. "That is not the case. Everyone over there is C-1 or C-2 for doing what they're doing. And that's what's important."
Readiness designations for Army units range from C-1 to C-5, with C-1 being the highest level of readiness and C-5 being the lowest.
The Army, including Reserve and National Guard, is now in the midst of its biggest reorganization since World War II. At the end of that process, the National Guard would have 28 combat-brigades that were fully equipped and better manned and trained than in the past.
"If you go back to the earlier period, they were hollow," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The Reserve-Guard brigades were frequently without the equipment and were hollow. The measure we're now measuring them against is to be deployable and equipped and trained and capable of undertaking the kinds of tasks that they'll be assigned."
But a defense official, who asked not to be named because of Pentagon policy, said that the National Guard's equipment problems went beyond the $21 billion figure cited by Blum. That figure is only the amount needed to replace equipment that had been lost directly in the war. Full modernization for the National Guard is a "25-year problem" that will require billions more, the official said.
A measure introduced Tuesday by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., would provide the Army with $6 billion more in the fiscal 2007 defense appropriations bill to replace or repair equipment worn out or destroyed in the war. Another $3.9 billion would go to the Marine Corps, and $326 million would be used to stockpile war supplies
Last week, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, gave a floor speech in which he said the current state of the Army puts the United States at serious "strategic risk" if a crisis erupts elsewhere.
Forty-percent of all Army equipment has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Army has become so strapped to replace lost or worn-out equipment that it is planning on drawing upon pre-positioned stocks on ships to fill the shortages, Skelton said.
Skelton said the Army has lost more than 1,000 wheeled vehicles, over 100 armored vehicles and 100 helicopters since the start of the war.
Skelton said the Army needs $17.5 billion this year for the equipment shortfall.
A second defense official, who also asked not to be named, said that units in the United States do suffer some equipment shortfalls, but that units are fully-equipped and prepared before they enter the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said.
"Our commitment has always been to the soldier on the battlefield, the official said. "Units in combat are maintained at the highest state of readiness."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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