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Sunday, Oct 1, 2023

Editorial—The foot soldier is forgotten in defense budget

On any particular day, at nearly any hour, if you surf the cable channels you’ll find a rerun of “Weapons At War” or some similar documentary about America’s high-tech arsenal.

But if video footage of high-speed jets, massive tanks, “smart” rifles and other technologically advanced weapons makes you feel safe and sound, we’ve got news for you: the men and women of our armed forces don’t necessarily feel the same.

Despite the billions of dollars spent each year on wizard weapons, the majority of our front-line troops are still equipped with outdated gear dating from the Vietnam War. According to a recent Newhouse News Service report, most ground warriors today are still using load-bearing equipment , packs, belts and harnesses , that were designed more than 30 years ago. Even the GI canteen is the same basic model used by World War II American troops when they stormed ashore in North Africa in 1942.

It’s not that advances haven’t been made in this field over all these decades. The equipment the GIs and Marines want already exists. Open any number of mail-order catalogs and you’ll find it for sale.

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Called Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE), it’s been promised to our service people since the early 1990s. Marine grunts are better off than their GI counterparts, since the Corps began issuing MOLLE gear last year. Still, it will take three years to outfit each Marine with the new equipment; once the Army starts issuing it next year, it will take seven years to totally outfit GIs.

New lightweight body armor capable of stopping bullets as well as shrapnel also exists, but both GIs and Marines are still wearing armor that has changed little since “flak vests” were originally introduced during the Korean War.

Nor is it a matter of not enough money. Compared to the billions spent annually on whiz-bang weapons , even in this under-funded military environment , the cost of outfitting soldiers and Marines with MOLLE harnesses and packs is a drop in the bucket, only $500 each. The new body armor costs about twice that amount.

What’s missing is the political will. Backpacks and flak vests just don’t have the political glamour of F-18s and Stealth bombers. Moreover, the manufacturer of MOLLE gear , Specialty Defense Systems of Pennsylvania , is a small player in the defense contract business and has no lobbyists in Washington. By contrast, Lockheed-Martin, one of the nation’s top defense contractors, alone spent $5.9 million on Washington lobbying in 1998.

This situation is reminiscent of the free-spending days of the Regan administration. Despite spending trillions on defense, U.S. forces during the 1980s suffered a chronic shortage of the spare parts needed to keep aircraft flying and ships operational. Some ground combat units lacked adequate numbers of rifles and pistols.

The Cold War is over, but we still expect our military personnel to go in harm’s way , in some ways, more than ever before. Despite the displays of air power in the Gulf War and the Balkans, it remains the common foot soldier who must eventually take the ground and hold it. They should have the best equipment available, not hand-me-downs from the warriors of a generation before them.

Defense contracting is one of San Diego’s leading industries. More than that, however, fully a third of the entire Marine Corps and a fifth of the Navy are stationed locally. Many of the men and women going into combat with obsolete gear are our friends and neighbors.

We need to remind ourselves of that when urging lawmakers in Washington what priorities to set in defense spending.

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