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Exodus of trained soldiers saps US Army's readiness to meet its NATO obligation

In the US Army of the 1980s, says its quiet, scholarly chief of staff, Gen. Edward C. (Shy) Meyer, the basic problem is to prepare for the "three days of war."

These "days," as explained by General Meyer in a recent white paper, are: first -- deterrence through strength; second -- fighting if necessary; third -- terminating hostilities with "an acceptable level of security" for the United States and its allies.

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In an all-volunteer Army that loses seven out of every 10 recruits before or at the end of their first enlistment, fighting the battle of the "first day" presents a stiff challenge which is evident on this sprawling, 339-square-mile installation, with its own airfields and firing ranges.

Commanders like Maj. Gen. David Doyle, the tank warfare expert who is deputy commander of the III Corps and Ft. Hood, see the Army's job as deterring war, but they also see the trained men needed to make that deterrent credible dropping out.

Even the Army's proud "Green berets" -- the special forces unit from whose ranks came the volunteers of the "Blue Lights" commando unit involved in the aborted hostage rescue attempt in Iran April 24 -- have suffered from this personnel attrition.

"We train highly skilled specialists, too," said a special forces officer at Ft. Bragg, N.C., the home of the Blue Lights. "They learn not just the fighting and killing skills, but highly specialized electronics, communications, and advanced medical subjects, Naturally, the civilian talent scouts are looking for them. Many succumb and leave the Army for that super pay."

If war comes in NATO Europe, forces at Ft. Hood will enter the "second day" phase by deploying to West Germany. Should that day come, they hope to be well-prepared enough to assure that General Meyer's "third day" condition is met -- terminating the conflict "in such a manner that, on the day after war, the US and its allies enjoy an acceptable level of security." In other words, to win the war for the West.

What this involves, for the approximately 760,000 men and 57,000 women in the US Army -- whose pay, benefits, and general appreciation by an indifferent American civilian population often lag far behind those enjoyed by a supermarket grocery bagger or a short-order cook -- was summed up by another four-star general who has risen through the ranks.

Gen. Volney Warner, US Readiness Command (REDCOM) commander at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB), Fla., put the Army's personnel retention problem this way:

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"Keeping people in the Army, after they are trained and their first enlistment is up, is an extraordinarily serious problem, especially for midgrade NCOs [noncommissioned officers]. We need a whole new series of benefits. We need a new GI bill. We need education and family benefits.

"We enlist soldiers, make them jump, break their legs, fight in the desert and the arctic, spend 30-day periods outside the United States. We enlist a soldier, but if he's young and married, we have to re-enlist his wife."

Here at Ft. Hood, according to officers and men of the 2nd Armored Division, an outfit on continuous active duty since it was first activated at Ft. Benning, Ga., in 1940 before the US involvement in World War II, 40 percent of the younger male soldiers are married and have their wives living here, on or off base. Some must apply for food stamps to make ends meet. Many, offered well-paying jobs off-base, never sign up again.

"The Army and the marines were forced to look at the retention problem before the other services," says General Doyle. "To be part of a tank crew is a hard, dirty job, most of the time. It's not glamorous."

Despite this, Ft. Hood personnel, from the generals and colonels down to privates overhauling the engines of their M-60s in the routine quarterly check every tank crew is required to carry out, said the base is looking forward to carry out, said the base is looking forward to receiving the new Chrysler XM-1 heavy tanks, now limited production, next fall. Some spoke of it almost as fondly as a racing driver might mention his new Maserati or Lotus.

"A beautiful fighting machine," General Doyle says. "One day, I jumped into an M-113 [armored personnel carrier, or APC for short] and said, 'Follow that tank!" Well, the XM-1 was doing 25 miles per hour, or better, while the APC, on rought terrain, was doing maybe 3 miles per hour. And all the while, the tank was firing on the move, hitting the target, and moving on again."

According to Percy A. Pierre, assistant secretary of the Army for research, development, and acquisition, who supervises his service's weapons development in the Pentagon, the XM-1 is entering service at Ft. Hood (ahead of other Army posts) none too soon.

"Until a few years ago," Dr. Pierre reported recently, "Soviet tank forces [ in Europe and elsewhere) were equipped with T- 54s, T-55s, and T-62s -- the latter a fair match for our M-60.

"A few years ago, we spotted the deployment of two brand-new tanks, the T-64 and T- 72. These we consider superior to our M-60 series, and they have been built and deployed by the thousands. We are now expecting the imminent appearance in the field of the T-80, a still more advanced main battle tank. We are also betting that the successor to that vehicle is already on the drawing board. Clearly, we have to do a better job of modernizing than we have done in the past. . . ."

Countering new Soviet tank and other weapons developments is one of the training specialties of Lt. Col. Gerry Rutherford of the 2nd Armored Division. In Ft. Hood's opposing forces and "Red Thrust" training programs, he explains, "We're training against life-like adversaries, wearing Soviet uniforms."

The program uses some Russian-speaking instructors, and the doctrine, tactics , and weapons systems of Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies. In such exercises as the brigade-level maneuvers conducted here in August 1978, Ft. Hood's 6th Cavalry Brigade (air combat), Soviet equipment, as well as Soviet tactics, are pitted against the best US training can offer in simulated combat.

An aide to 2nd Armored Division commander Maj. Gen. Richard L. Prillaman summed up the attitude of the combat Army toward one of the main points of General Meyer's white-paper doctrine: the use of prepositioned stores of equipment in Europe, South Korea, and other overseas stations, a concept the Army calls POMCUS.

"Our readiness for war," this colonel pointed out, "is on a come-as-you-are basis. We have a real commitment toward NATO. A requirement to fight anywhere is part of our training. But we don't depend on POMCUS alone. We have to carry our own equipment, too. Eighty percent of our people have to be ready to move at any time. And that means sometimes getting the first word at 0400 hours [4 a.m.] that you're going to ship out that same day."

Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford says training, like other Army operations, is affected by the retention problem. "The middle managers -- people who have learned mechanics, electronics, or something else that's a highly paid trade in civilian life -- have to have extraordinary motivation to stay in. I'm talking about the medics, the communications people, the maintenance men."

Ft. Hood, in training, is practically self-sufficient, and will not be as dependent as smaller bases or corps headquarters on the Army's new National Training Center (NTC) at Ft. Irwin, Calif., in the heart of the Mojave Desert. Some of Ft. Hood's personnel are likely to be assigned for duty there when the NTC becomes fully operational, which is planned after Oct. 1, 1983.

California and federal agencies involved say they are pleased with the Army's plans to use the NTC's 643,000 acres -- about the size of Rhode Island. Ft. Irwin has enough space and separation from towns or villages to closely simulate combat, especially combat under conditions like those in deserts of the Middle East or the Persian Gulf area, without harmful impact on ecology or people.

Troops from all of the Army's 14 active divisions (its total strength is 16 active and 8 National Guard divisions) stationed in the continental US will spend two weeks at Ft. Irwin every 18 months. They won't have to take their gear with them, as they might if air- or sea-lifted rapidly to West Germany, the Persian Gulf, or Korea, but will draw tanks, other armored vehicles, and artillery from a pool at Ft. Irwin.

They will then take the field, as smaller units already do here at Ft. Hood, against US soldiers stationed permanently at the NTC and trained in the tactics of the Soviet Army, with the "enemy" wearing Warsaw Pact, Cuban, or other communist-bloc uniforms and using either real Soviet equipment or disguised US weapons.

A totally computerized electronic surveillance system will "watch" the battlefield, recording and evaluating events in the manner of human referees, assessing "losses" or personnel and equipment and providing records of unit performance. This two-week period for each unit will involve rough field conditions, with few of the amenities of life on a contemporary Army post like Ft. Hood.

Since Ft. Irwin is close to Nellis Air Base, where the Air Force's "Red Flag" program simulates the aerial tactics of the Soviet Air Force, the USAF will provide "air strikes" flown against the training troops. Those flown in their support will enable Army ground personnel, as well as the Army's helicopter and other pilots, to observe USAF tactics.

After the NTC is in full use, a total of 42 active Army battalions is supposed to spend a two-week training period there each year.

One of the persistent themes in conversations with officers, noncoms, and soldiers here and at other Army posts is the poor image the Army enjoys in the country as a whole. General Doyle summed it up, as seen at Ft. Hood, in this way:

"We've got good and bad soldiers here. Sure, their reading skills are down; we notice this. But what do you expect when you start [as Army recruiters, not making their goals last year, began to do last fall] with non-highschool graduates? Look at civilian life: The Army's problems are a mirror of the general lowering of educational standards in our society.

"But let me tell you this: Our men and women are fed up with being told they are, or being compared with, a bunch of dummies. If you keep telling people -- in the Army or anywhere else -- this long enough, they'll begin to believe you and to act accordingly. We don't believe it here, and it isn't true. Overall, the Army is smart, and it's sharp."

TRaining teams from many of Ft. Hood's units are sent to reserve and National Guard units throughout the country to impart some of this smartness and sharpness to them. IF President Carter's request for registration of young men finally gets through Congress, and if young men (or women, which seems unlikely now) are ever drafted in an emergency, they would have to train the draftees, too.

The big problem in such an emergency, Army manpower specialists out in the field and in the Pentagon argue, is that the time lag between the draftees' induction by the Selective System and the time it takes for them to reach basic and intermediate training centers (to say nothing of more advanced training activities, like many of those at Ft. Hood) might be so great that the army's overall readiness would severely suffer.

Top Pentagon manpower specialist Robert Pirie and his staff argue that this is the reason why all the services need a pool of trained personel to fill the ranks of units deploying to combat or overseas stations (regular exercises in rotating National Guardsmen and reservists to replace personnel sent to Europe already are carried out at Ft. Hood).

The Pentagon recently announced that certain key retired military personnel who had completed 20 years service and who are subject to recall under terms of their discharges, soon will be notified that they can be recalled to active duty inside the US and will be told where to expect such duty.

Defense Department specialists, before the President's call for registration, always contended that shortages in the Army's individual ready reserve (IRR) could be largely met by recalling younger retirees. The IRR is a group of former soldiers who have finished their volunteer enlistments and are required to stay in the IRR until they have completed a total of six years of active and reserve service.

If war broke out in the Indian Ocean, in Europe, or elsewhere, the Army would need to mobilize between 500,000 and 700,000 of such pre-trained personnel. But the IRR now if from 300,000 to 500,000 short of these goals, reports the Association of the US Army, depending on which set of figures is accepted as valid.

Could retirees fill the bill?asks the association. The Army estimates there are about 160,000 enlisted men and 18,000 officer retirees under 60 years of age. Perhaps 80,000 of these could relieve active duty personnel in rear-echelon jobs. the trouble is that most are over 45 and not well-suited to replace members of the IRR between 24 and 26 who have served recently.

"The IRR," says an associatio study, "is stocked primarily with privates first-class and corporals, the ranks that carry rifles, load cannon, and climb telephone poles. The retiree ranks are populated with senior sergeants and, while their experience may be extremely valuable, we simply don't need as many of them."

It would be more to the point, says the study -- and active Army training officers generally seem to agree -- to find ways to get more fully trained young soldiers into the IRR.

Soldiers today, even the foot-slogging, fox hold-digging infantryman, need more desperrately than ever the reading, mathematical, and mechanical skills to operate increasingly sophisticated Army weapons systems -- night-vision shooting equipment, laser-guided antitank missiles and shells, the new lighter fighting vehicles, and antiaircraft guns.

In their joint statement in support of the fiscal 1981 budget, Army Secretary Clifford Alexander and General Meyer concluded, "Manning the force continues to be the Army's primary concern."

This concern, concurred in by every staff Army officer this reporter interviewed in Washington or on a recent tour that included Ft. Bragg, N.C., MacDill AFB, Fla., and Ft. Hood, arises from a shortfall of 16,000 from its congressional authorized strength in recruiting new soldiers in 1979. (The Army contends that it is actually 75,000 short of the men and women it really needs.)

As Ft. Hood's military chiefs pointed out, there has been a steady drop (reflected in the Defense Department's annual report this year) in the number of first-term enlistees in all services in the two top categories of intelligence. High-school diploma graduates enlisting in the Army did hit a high of 73.7 percent in 1978, but that figure has been dropping ever since. Projections are that it will be down to 60.6 percent by next Oct. 1.

"What is most alarming,' said a brigadier general, a combat veteran who preferred not to be named, "is that despite our above-average retention figures -- people who do decide to re-enlist when their first enlistment is up -- there is a steady decrease in re-enlistment rates in the whole Army for men and women trained to operate the sophisticated weapons of today and tomorrow."

"The solution is not just draft," he added. "It has to be a whole new attitude toward giving several years of one's life to serve a country one believes in. Compulsory national service, with a choice between the uniformed services and some kind of constructive civilian projects, might be part of the answer. But the real change will have to come in the hearts and minds of Americans."

Next: The Navy's "people problems"

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