WASHINGTON – The country's brave soldiers are serving in an Army that can't handle serious threats.
This was the message Thursday to members of a House defense subcommittee from three Army deputy chiefs of staff – Lt. Gens. James Thurman,Stephen Speakes and Michael Rochelle.
The subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee,chaired by Rep. John Murtha,D-Pa.,oversees funds going to all branches of the military.
Thurman said there are four reasons for the Army's lack of readiness – shortage of soldiers,scant time at home for soldiers after tours abroad,the expense of counterinsurgency training and the activation of reservists.
Representatives grilled the generals on readiness evaluations,asking whether they were trustworthy indicators.
“The readiness report is an objective assessment,” Thurman said,explaining that commanders are only allowed to upgrade or downgrade their assessments by slight amounts to protect against exaggeration. “We encourage those commanders to call it like it is.”
Lt. Col. Martin Downie,an Army spokesman,explained that commanders fill out monthly reports detailing the status of their trainees and equipment. Some of the assessments require the commander to use subjective judgment.
“He looks at more than just the parts,he looks at the sum of the parts and makes an overall assessment and has some flexibility there,” Downie said.
The generals said they were grateful for money the subcommittee has allocated,but Thurman said the Army needs all the money President Bush proposed in his 2009 budget request.
Soldiers face a different type of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than they have prepared for in the past,which requires different training and saps Army strength. In the past,Thurman said,a well-trained soldier could cope in any situation.
“But,I don't believe that any more,” Thurman said. “Because now we're forced to operate in and around populations. We're forced to understand cultures. We're forced to understand an enemy that's not a state-on-state enemy. It's an enemy that uses asymmetrical warfare.”
Rep. Bill Young,R-Fla.,addressed soldiers' deployment cycles. The cycle is currently at 15 months deployed and 12 months at home.
“We're not only worried about our equipment. We're worried about our troops,” Young said. “Our troops are tired.”
Rochelle said that 80 percent of the entire Army is deployed or awaiting deployment. This includes 42 to 45 percent of reserve forces. The generals agreed that deployments must be shortened.
The legislators said they are worried about who the Army is recruiting. Murtha expressed concern about the drop in the number of high school graduates being recruited.
Matthew Mazonkey,Murtha's communications director,said after the hearing that,before the war in Iraq,94 percent of recruits had high school diplomas. That number is now 71 percent.
Though each branch of the military has its own standards,the Department of Defense has an overarching standard of 90 percent high school graduates.
At the hearing,Rochelle said the Army is concerned about the percentage and will not let it drop.
As recommended by the subcommittee,the government has spent $21 billion on mine resistant ambush protected armored vehicles since the 2007 budget was adopted. The so-called MRAPs are armored fighting vehicles designed to survive improvised explosive device attacks and ambushes.
The Army officials said the vehicles are effective at protecting troops – only one out of the 10,000 MRAPs,which went into service in December 2007 – has been destroyed.
Mazonkey said Bush's budget proposal does not include any money for more MRAP vehicles. He said the subcommittee will look at the vehicles' effectiveness to see if the subcommittee will recommend more money for the program.
House members could not agree among themselves about the usefulness of the MRAPs. Rep. Jim Moran,D-Va.,said he'd heard from troops that the vehicles routinely got stuck in the mud in Iraq and asked if the money would be better used on other equipment or training.
Rep. Norm Dicks,D-Wash.,interrupted to interject that he'd heard Marines say,”Thank God for MRAPs.”
Thurman said that it depends on where the vehicles are used. In urban areas,MRAPs sometimes have difficulty navigating,but overall,the Army likes them.
As for when the Army can return to the level of readiness it needs,Thurman said the balance can be restored by 2011 if the Army can cope with “the magnitude of operations.”
But Murtha later warned,”The American public is speaking and saying we cannot bear $2 or $3 billion a day. So we better figure out the best we can do this year,because none of us know what's going to happen next year.”