Although U.S. armed forces are being reduced in size since the demise of the Soviet Union, the military establishment is still massive. Yet strangely enough, the Pentagon says minor league operations in Haiti, Rwanda, Cuba and elsewhere are causing a shortage of personnel.
Quietly, the Pentagon has started asking for volunteers from the 1 million reservists and National Guard to sign up for temporary active duty overseas.Does this mean the U.S. military has been so weakened by budget cuts that it scarcely is able to function even without a good-size war to fight? Actually, the situation is not that serious. The armed forces still have plenty of fighters. What they lack are enough specialists.
The kind of skills needed in Africa and Cuba - and perhaps in Haiti in months to come - are not readily found in large numbers in combat ranks: military police, for example, or engineers, builders of water treatment facilities, operators of such facilities, mechanics, people with medical and linguistic skills.
But it is precisely such specialists that are needed in current operations around the world. Many regular armed forces specialists in various parts of the world have been on duty for months and need to be rotated home. But there are not enough replacements. Thus the call for reservists who can serve for a few weeks.
If enough volunteers are not found, the Pentagon may have to consider calling up some specialized reserve units. However, that decision still has not been made and may not come at all. Much depends on what else happens this fall.
The reservists are valuable to the active-duty forces, not only for their military specialities but for the civilian skills they also bring to the job that may enhance their usefulness.
As the Persian Gulf War showed, when 228,560 members of the National Guard and reserves were called up, the Pentagon relies heavily on these part-time people, even when fighting a war. Some specialties, such as water supply battalions, chemical brigades and heavy helicopter units, don't even exist in active duty ranks and are found only in the Guard or reserves.
In a post-Cold War world, but one increasingly fragmented and disorderly, the U.S. military may be called upon to deal with refugees, hunger, disease, peacekeeping, construction, supply, communication and transport more than with combat. As a result, the Pentagon ought to re-examine the kinds of personnel training it does.
The combat troops are still needed, of course. But the ratio of skilled specialists perhaps needs to be adjusted. There is no use having a military that doesn't match the assignments it gets.