Americans would do well to ponder the unrelieved strains on the nation’s military readiness on this Veterans Day, one short week after the election of a new president and Congress.

The Army’s readiness is particularly low. Seven years of combat overseas have exacted a grinding toll on all our military services, including the National Guard and Reserves. Among the symptoms: compromised training, shortfalls in deploying personnel and equipment, less maintenance for worn-out weapons, and truncated downtime at home before troops must redeploy.

Despite the economy’s woes, President-elect Barack Obama and the bolstered Democrat majority in the new Congress must not shrug off the Pentagon’s pleas to hold defense spending at current levels for at least three years after major combat operations in Iraq subside, Heritage national security analyst Mackenzie Eaglen argues in a new paper. She writes:

Even with the budget increases of recent years, the U.S. military is essentially living paycheck-to-paycheck. … Congress must prevent the military from crossing any ‘invisible red line’ of dangerously reduced readiness that would likely be detected only after the fact.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates — whose retention is urged upon Obama by some admirers — recently warned of “important lessons learned” from deep cuts to the defense budget following the Cold War.

Interestingly, military subjects account for five of 13 “urgent issues” on a list the Government Accountability Office released two days after the election to identify priorities for the new administration and Congress. Fleshed out on a new GAO website along with non-military topics are these challenges: caring for service members; defense readiness; defense spending; protecting the homeland; and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The public is open to arguments for improving military readiness, a new Rasmussen poll suggests. One out of three Americans, or 34%, say close friends or relatives gave their lives in military service. Fully 79% have a favorable opinion of the military, and nearly half — 45% — consider Veterans Day to be one of the country’s most important holidays. The military’s favorability rating climbed 8 points from a Rasmussen Reports survey a year ago. Only 9% hold an unfavorable view. Among Republicans, 96% favorably view the military; among Democrats, 69% do. (For unaffiliated voters, the favorability rating is 72%.) The older the voter, the more favorable his view tends to be.

Although 43% of those surveyed say they planned to do something special today to honor veterans, 36% say they did not. In any case, Congress can do something special by taking decisive steps to provide relief and begin to restore military readiness, including:

  • Reset, replace and modernize aging, worn-out equipment.
  • Resume emphasis on training for conventional as well as irregular (such as counterinsurgency) missions.
  • Increase live-fire training and reduce reliance on simulation in training.
  • Continue to increase Special Operations forces at a rate that emphasizes quality, not expediency.
  • Reduce reliance on the Navy and Air Force for ground missions.

“It is crucial that Congress and the next administration commit now to providing defense funding at current levels of roughly 4 percent of gross domestic product for the next several years,” Eaglen concludes. “The security of the country depends on it.”

And what a fitting tribute to our veterans.

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