Self-inflicted wounds

Posted: Mar 16, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- A series of highly publicized military mishaps in the first 50 days of the new administration are raising concerns in some quarters of Capitol Hill that conditions in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines may be much worse than anyone imagined. March 12: At a live-fire training range in Kuwait, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 accidentally drops three 500-pound bombs on a group of forward-air controllers, killing six and injuring three. March 4: In Georgia, a Florida National Guard plane, carrying members of a Virginia Guard unit, crashes and kills all 21 passengers. Feb. 16: In Iraq, U.S. and UK warplanes attack military targets near Baghdad. A post-strike damage assessment reveals that half of the new "smart bombs" used missed their targets. Feb. 13: In Hawaii, six soldiers from the Army's 25th Infantry Division are killed and 11 injured when two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters collide during a night-training exercise. Feb. 9: Off Pearl Harbor, the USS Greenville, a nuclear-attack submarine conducting a rapid-ascent demonstration for the civilians aboard, crashes into a Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru. Nine aboard the Japanese ship perish when the vessel sinks. Feb. 6: The U.S. Army acknowledges that it has run out of nine-millimeter ammunition and that the problem will persist "until sometime this fall," and that "until further notice" only MPs will be provided with their basic ammo requirements. Each of these highly visible events have generated headlines and prompted investigations into what went wrong and why. Eventually, the inquiries will produce lengthy reports and recommendations for remedial action, procedural repairs, new safety restrictions and training enhancements. Inevitably, the people paying attention now will assume that all is well. It's not. These incidents are the most recent visible signs that America's armed forces are in distress. Some on Capitol Hill are whispering that there are other less-noticed and under-reported indicators of serious trouble that are the ongoing legacy of the Clinton-Gore-Cohen regime. They are calling them "self-inflicted wounds." One Armed Services Committee staff member, pointing to this week's Pentagon decision to halt the mass distribution of black Ranger berets, said, "The [Bush] administration did the right thing. It was bad for the Rangers, and worse for any trooper who would have had to wear a beret made in communist China. But why did it take them so long to figure that out?" Another frustrated defense analyst told me, "The beret issue is just the tip of the iceberg, look into what the Navy is doing to the USS Iowa." I did, and it isn't pretty. I called an old friend from my days on Ronald Reagan's NSC staff, Dr. Bill Stearman. He's now the executive director of the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association and shares my quaint notion that the 16-inch guns and Tomahawk cruise missiles aboard the "battle-wagons" are life-saving weapons -- particularly for Marines. Naval gunfire from the USS New Jersey (BB-62) saved my rifle platoon in Vietnam and fired to support Marine units in Lebanon in 1983. During Desert Storm, cruise missiles launched from both the USS Missouri (BB-63) and the USS Wisconsin (BB-64) attacked targets in Iraq. When the last battleships were taken out of active service in 1992, Congress passed Public Law 104-106, requiring that the USS Iowa (BB-61) and USS Wisconsin be maintained, ready for reactivation. According to Stearman, the USS Wisconsin is indeed being well-maintained at Norfolk Naval Base where she is reportedly shipshape and ready to fight when duty calls. But, he reports, on March 8, contrary to the law, the USS Iowa was towed out of Newport, R.I., en route to Suisun Bay, Calif., to become a pork-barrel, museum trophy piece for California Senator Barbara Boxer. Unfortunately, the Boxer-selected site, approved by the Clinton administration, lacks the ability to adequately maintain the USS Iowa as a mobilization asset; and the spare parts, ammunition and other infrastructure necessary for reactivation are at Norfolk. "What's worse," says Stearman, "towing the ship this time of year is downright dangerous." When I challenged my old friend on how dangerous it could be to tow a battleship down the Atlantic seaboard, through the Panama Canal and up the California coastline, he issued a challenge: "See if you can find the USS Stoddard." I did. On Feb. 3, the retired USS Stoddard (DDG-22) sank in 16,000 feet of water 1,500 miles east of Hawaii as it was being towed to its "mothball berth" in Texas. I could find no press report. Perhaps because no lives were lost, the so-called mainstream media ignored the sinking of the warship. The USS Iowa is scheduled to reach the Panama Canal on March 24. Before then, the battleship should be turned around and sent back to where she belongs: Norfolk Naval Base. Doing so would prevent another of the Clinton era's "self-inflicted wounds."