Washington The nation's military leaders told Congress on Wednesday that American troops are in danger of losing their war-fighting edge unless the next president adds tens of billions of dollars to the defense budget or adopts a less ambitious agenda for using the military in hot spots around the world.
"We must find the resources necessary to modernize the force," said Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Otherwise the cumulative strains of carrying out peacekeeping and other overseas missions while also preparing for major wars will erode combat readiness, he said.
The current budget of nearly $300 billion should be increased, said Shelton, who did not specify by how much, saying the exact figures could be established after next year's planned review of national security strategy.
He and the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps were called before the Senate and House armed services committees to assess military readiness, a hot topic of debate in the presidential campaign.
Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate committee, pleaded for a bipartisan discussion, but the hearing quickly became a verbal tug-of-war between Democrats defending the Clinton administration's record and Republicans accusing the administration of running down the military.
When Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee's ranking Democrat, said George W. Bush has called for adding $45 billion in defense spending and Al Gore has proposed adding $100 billion, several Republican members objected, saying Bush has not offered a firm figure on how much he would increase spending.
At the Republican National Convention last month, Bush declared the military in dangerous decline and laid blame on a Clinton-Gore administration that he said had overused and underfunded the armed forces. His assertions triggered a debate on military readiness that led to Wednesday's hearings.
Shelton said that for several years the Pentagon has moved money from procurement accounts for the purchase of new weaponry and equipment to pay for training and other day-to-day costs of maintaining the force.
That has kept troops ready for combat, but at the cost of replacing aging equipment.
"Our equipment is wearing out at a much faster rate than expected," said Shelton, who is the highest-ranking military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense. "Consequently, our troops are paying the price" by spending more time fixing mechanical problems instead of training for war.
"We are, collectively, robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.