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The real state of US readiness

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They're both right. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, says the US military is in a state of decline, hobbled by low morale, dated equipment, and misdirected leadership.

Al Gore, the Democratic hopeful, counters that America's armed forces are the strongest in the world - proven in battle, smarter than ever before, light years ahead of crumbling rivals.

Those conflicting views about military readiness - and the Clinton administration's defense legacy - have become the center of a national debate as both candidates intensify their charges toward Nov. 7.

So how can both be correct?

For starters, Bush and Gore are sifting through the facts and clinging to those that best support their official positions. But beyond campaign rhetoric, the debate underscores a lingering disagreement in the United States about the role of the military - and whether it needs to be dramatically downsized, in function and funding.

Although today's climate is nothing like the 1980s, when defense was a core issue for elections, Americans still have strong feelings about a part of society that is both essential and financially draining. The topic tugs both ways.

Take Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander during its 78-day air war over Yugoslavia. When asked about the performance of US soldiers in action - the ultimate test of any military - the general speaks proudly.

Morale? "Great," he says. Readiness? "No problem."

US pilots flew 37,000 sorties and lost only two aircraft. No American soldier was killed by enemy fire.

Yet General Clark, now retired, can see greater challenges in the future, and weaknesses in the US armor. The US needs to be able to strike faster, he says, and not struggle with lack of manpower or integration problems among the different services.

"I'm concerned that we've come a long way from the cold war, yet most of the armed forces are still cold-war-based," Clark says. "Inevitably, it will need to be developed to the next level."

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