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The World

Pentagon Scales Back Training Exercises Abroad

The military has recently canceled or postponed dozens of such scheduled events, citing the strain of current missions.

August 16, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The strain on U.S. forces of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has forced the Pentagon to cancel dozens of military training exercises, a decision that senior defense officials say could affect the fighting edge of its troops over the long term.

The latest and largest exercise to be canceled, called Bright Star, has been conducted every two years since 1981 in Egypt. About 10,000 American and 60,000 foreign troops were to participate in this year's event, which was to begin next month.

The exercise was abruptly canceled Aug. 8 when Pentagon officials realized that it would mean recalling to the Middle East thousands of soldiers who had only recently returned home from long, arduous deployments in Iraq.

"This was an extremely difficult decision," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a statement this week. "Given our current worldwide commitments, it seemed best to take a temporary break from

But Bright Star is only part of the story. Since Oct. 1, the Pentagon has canceled or postponed 49 of the 182 training exercises it had scheduled for this fiscal year.

Military officials say that if the trend continues, the military skills of U.S. soldiers could deteriorate -- and so could relationships with the many countries for whom such exercises provide critical contacts with American troops.

"Given the commitments and the fact that we're out there doing a lot of missions, I think a lot of the skill sets are being worked," said a senior military official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But there is tremendous value to these exercises, and you can delay them for only so long before it starts to show."

These exercises, often elaborate combat simulations involving tens of thousands of troops, are designed to provide realistic military training and have come to serve a critical function in building military skills, especially in peacetime. Between 1995 and 2000, the Pentagon spent an average of $400 million to $500 million a year just on exercises sponsored by the Joint Chiefs, according to a study by the General Accounting Office. That does not include money spent for ongoing training at bases and training centers around the world run by the four military services.

Bright Star, the largest and most significant training exercise regularly conducted by the U.S. Central Command, which manages forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, focuses on desert fighting skills. It teaches troops everything from how to maintain their equipment in desert terrain to how to communicate with each other and with coalition forces.

"I don't think we need a lot of desert training right now," said one military official involved in running the exercise. "You're already exercising real-world, you're already operating with these countries on a real-world basis."

Bright Star, scheduled to run for several weeks, was to have drawn heavily on the very ground, air and special operations units that are and have been deployed in Iraq for months. It was last canceled in 1992, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

"Most of those skill sets that you get from Bright Star were well exercised in the first eight months of this year -- deployment of air and sea lift, bridging of forces, movement of military equipment halfway around the world," said Daniel Goure, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based research organization. Goure is a former director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

But while many U.S. forces are presumably current on desert warfare, that's not the case for the 60,000 troops from other countries who were to participate in the exercise, Goure said. They were from Egypt, Greece, Germany, Jordan, Spain and Britain.

"The second important feature of these exercises is the collaboration with friends and allies," Goure said. "We may not need Bright Star to keep our skill sets going, but the Egyptians and others certainly do. And these exercises build friendships and connections that are valuable."

Goure and others say the real concern is not whether such exercises are canceled this year, but how many years it will take to restart the training regimen.

"I think at this point [canceling such programs] is a smart force-management tool, but it does raise the broader question of 'Where does this end?' " said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution. "At some point there's a cumulative effect."

Regardless of such exercises' value, with nearly three-quarters of Army combat troops now deployed overseas, military officials say they just don't have the resources to maintain the pace of exercises and training.

About 138,000 of those deployed overseas are reservists, many in certain specialties that are being called up again and again. An additional 67,000 reservists from other branches of the military also are deployed. In Iraq alone, 133,000 Army soldiers are deployed, out of a total of 144,000 U.S. and 12,500 coalition personnel. There are 34,000 U.S. troops in Kuwait.

Planning for Bright Star had been underway for more than nine months when Rumsfeld intervened to cancel it, military officials said.

"We've just now redeployed troops back home," one military official said.

"The question is, is the exercise that important this year to send them back? Would you want to be the one to tell Mrs. Soldier, 'Sorry, but your husband is heading right back there again'?"

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