Commentary

Bosnia Mission Weakens U.S. Military

By Gary Dempsey
December 8, 1998

The Dayton Peace Agreement, drafted at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just over three years ago, brought a halt to the war in Bosnia. But the costs of this effort have been higher than many realize. Today, the United States has 6,900 combat troops on the ground in Bosnia and 3,100 support personnel in Croatia, Hungary and Italy, all trying to implement the agreement.

It takes a lot of money to fund an operation like that. Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) says that the United States is currently “paying about half of the costs of the Bosnia peacekeeping operation,” or approximately $10.6 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.

In addition, the Bosnia operation has taken its toll on the U.S. military. Bosnia and other noncombat operations around the world are diminishing U.S. national security by creating an operations tempo that undercuts U.S. military readiness. In fact, over the past decade, the U.S. Army has been used in 29 significant overseas operations, compared with 10 during the preceding 40 years. The strain of that pace has shown up in negative trend lines across all military services in a number of readiness categories.

To relieve the European-based units that have carried out most of the Bosnia mission so far, responsibility for peacekeeping there has now been shifted to Ft. Hood’s First Cavalry Division, one of the premier U.S.-based combat divisions. And that has raised serious concerns on Capitol Hill. “The Army is disassembling one of its most ready, most fearsome war-fighting divisions,” explained one staff member of the House National Security Committee. “The action shows how the requirements of Bosnia are detracting from the military’s ability to do high-intensity conflicts.”

Bosnia and other overseas operations have also caused the Air Force’s readiness to slip. The units that fly over Bosnia and the Persian Gulf have priority for plane rotation, support equipment and pilots. As a result, fighter squadrons based in the United States are at their lowest readiness level in years. In 1992, 86 percent of U.S.-based fighter jets were designated “mission capable.” Last year, only 75 percent were.

Even more worrisome, there is mounting evidence that peacekeeping and other noncombat operations have adversely affected retention of soldiers, sailors and pilots. The Pentagon reports that first-term soldiers assigned to peacekeeping in Bosnia generally reenlisted at the same rate as their American counterparts stationed elsewhere in Europe last year. But soldiers stationed in Bosnia were offered a tax-exempt reenlistment bonus, which artificially inflated their retention rate. The gap in retention rates for mid-career soldiers stationed in Bosnia was more noticeable. They reenlisted at a rate of 70.2 percent last year, 6.1 percent lower than that of their American counterparts stationed elsewhere in Europe.

Or take the U.S. Air Force. Since 1996, it has performed hundreds of peacekeeping missions in 11 countries, with the Bosnia operation being one of the largest. These mundane and repetitive missions have negatively affected pilot morale because there is no compelling national interest to keep them motivated.

“We’re not really fighting the country’s wars; we’re just acting like the world’s policeman,” explains one pilot who is a veteran of both Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. This year, nearly 45 percent of eligible Air Force pilots did not renew their service contracts, up dramatically from 14 percent in 1994. Such an anemic retention rate cannot long be sustained without compromising U.S. military readiness. Last year the Air Force had 45 fewer pilots than needed. This year the number has grown to 700, and it’s expected to reach 2,000 by 2002.

Finally, there is increasing evidence that peacekeeping operations — as distinguished from actual national defense — deter prospective recruits from joining the military. And a strong economy, with plenty of private-sector jobs, has made it even tougher for the military to find recruits to replenish its shrinking ranks.

Both the Navy and the Air Force failed to meet their recruiting goals for fiscal year 1998. The Army was more successful, but only because its recruiting target was significantly lowered. The Navy fell short of its annual recruitment target by 13 percent, and it was recently reported that the Navy has 18,022 fewer sailors at sea than it needs.

The recruitment problem is likely to worsen with the current demographic downturn in the prime recruiting pool: males between the ages of 18 and 21 who are physically fit high school graduates and who scored in the upper half of the military’s standardized entry examination. That population currently consists of 15 percent fewer people than it did in the mid-1980s.

Secretary-General Javier Solana of NATO recently said he hoped peacekeeping troops in Bosnia would remain at their present strength next year. But the United States should rethink its role before its military readiness, retention and recruitment problems become acute.

Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is the author of the study “Rethinking the Dayton Agreement: Bosnia Three Years Later.”