Bush refuses to back down on military readiness assertion
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite Pentagon assurances that all of the U.S. Army's divisions are "fit to fight and ready to deploy," Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush refused Friday to concede that the U.S. military is combat-ready.
"No, I would not concede that necessarily," Bush told CNN's Candy Crowley on his campaign train headed toward Akron, Ohio. "I'm amazed that they would put out a statement right after our convention.
The U.S. Army said Friday that Bush was wrong when he said in his speech Thursday night to the Republican National Convention that two of the Army's 10 divisions were not ready to fight.
Bush had said: "If called on by the commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report ..., 'Not ready for duty, sir.'"
But Maj. Thomas Collins, an Army spokesman, told CNN: "All 10 Army divisions are combat-ready, fully able to meet their war-fighting mission."
Joint Chiefs chairman: Shortages can be fixed
Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, also disputed Bush's assertion.
Shelton, speaking to the Town Hall of Los Angeles public affairs group at the Beverly Hills Hotel, conceded that America's armed forces did have "some readiness shortfalls" that could not be fixed overnight.
But he assured the audience that all 10 of the Army's divisions were ready to carry out wartime missions.
Pentagon says morale is high
"I'm curious why it took them this long to say that they were combat-ready after a report last November that said they weren't," Bush said Friday in responding to the Army's statement.
U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush speaks with CNN Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley about the Republican Party convention and other important issues.
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
In November, The Washington Post reported that a classified U.S. Army evaluation said two divisions were considered to need additional manpower, equipment or training before being able to fight in a major regional war.
According to the Pentagon, the rating did not reflect the combat-readiness of the divisions, but the fact that they were already deployed and therefore could not be counted in the "first-to-deploy" units the Pentagon might send to fight two major wars simultaneously.
Shelton said that the two divisions referred to by Bush had reported not being ready for war but that the Army had "jumped right on top of that" and brought them back to combat readiness.
Republican lawmakers, who have long accused the Clinton administration of underfunding defense and overcommitting U.S. forces, seized on the report as proof of their argument. But some Pentagon officials portrayed the evaluation as a dramatic effort by the Army to highlight long-standing concerns and lobby for more money.
Since then, the Army has revised it plans so that those two divisions are no longer among the first to be deployed to fight a major war.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon on Friday also disputed Bush's statements that "morale is dangerously low."
Bacon said that under Clinton and Defense Secretary William Cohen -- the only Republican in outgoing president Clinton's Cabinet -- "we have increased military pay and benefits and increased money for arms procurement and training."
"Morale is high, and the best sign of that is that retention is going up and the recruiting problem that we faced last year has largely been repaired."
Largest defense budget since Cold War ended
All of the Army's divisions are at full strength, as opposed to last year when the Army missed its recruiting goals by 6,200 people, and had some units staffed at 90 percent, the Pentagon said. This year, the Army expects to exceed its goal of enlisting 80,000 new recruits.
Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on military personnel and procurement and technology at the private Brookings Institution, said there was "a kernel of truth" in the Republican charges because morale had plunged in the last decade because of troop and budget cuts.
He said that morale and readiness were now improving because of recent pay raises and changes in deployment schedules to areas such as the Gulf and Bosnia.
"Unit military readiness today is about what it was under (President) Ronald Reagan but probably less than it was during the Gulf War," O'Hanlon told Reuters.
Military analysts also pointed out that the House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, recently passed a $310 billion defense spending plan for the 2001 financial year. It included a 3.7 percent military pay raise requested by Clinton and would finance the purchase of a wide range of high-tech arms.
It is about $21 billion more than is being spent now and would be by far the biggest defense budget since the Cold War ended more than a decade ago.
CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre andReuters
contributed to this report.