WASHINGTON — The Army has downgraded one of its 10 active duty divisions to the second-lowest rating for wartime readiness, citing a lack of training and personnel caused by peacekeeping work in the Balkans, Pentagon and congressional officials said.
The move means that President Bush faces a problem he accused the Clinton administration of ignoring: how to keep the military honed and ready for combat when troops are dispatched across the globe to help maintain peace.
Pentagon officials said the downgrading of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., did not pose a serious problem for the military. But it is likely to fuel an ongoing debate in Congress over whether the services, particularly the Air Force and Army, are being overused overseas, as Bush often asserted in last year's campaign.
The action also comes at a time when the Bush administration is reviewing the Pentagon's requirement that the armed services be prepared to fight major wars almost simultaneously in two different regions, for example in the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula.
That requirement, which has been in place since Bush's father was president, sets a standard for readiness that the Army has had difficulty meeting in recent years, and that some administration advisers contend should be modified or scrapped.
Army officials said the 3rd Infantry Division remains an extremely capable and well-equipped force. But nearly 4,000 of its soldiers have been unavailable for the kind of training needed to keep soldiers ready for battle because they have been in Bosnia since October. That argument is countered by some troops and their officers, who have said that peacekeeping duty in the Balkans served to sharpen their military proficiency and was more inspiring than the standard training regimen in the United States.
But given the official readiness requirements, the 3rd Infantry Division's commander, Maj. Gen. Walter Sharp, downgraded its readiness rating to C-3, meaning it would require weeks, and perhaps months, of preparation before it could be deployed for wartime duty.
"If we had to have all 10 divisions available, the 3rd would be one of them," a Pentagon official said. "But they would not be one of the first responders. They are not at the leading edge as far as who is ready to fight."
The decision to downgrade the 3rd Division was made in February, but it was disclosed only when the Pentagon sent its most recent readiness report to Congress this month.
During last year's presidential campaign, Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, asserted that the military had been poorly equipped and paid, demoralized and overworked under the Clinton administration. To underscore their argument, they cited two divisions, the 10th Mountain and the 1st Mechanized Infantry, which were briefly classified as C-4 — the Pentagon's lowest rating — in late 1999.
But like the 3rd Infantry Division, those two divisions were rated as unready for war not because of budget cuts or low morale but because many of their soldiers were helping keep peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, Pentagon officials assert.