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April 30, 2008—Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) says the state of readiness among US military forces is his top national security concern, followed by succeeding in the fight in Afghanistan. He calls these “the two Damocles swords” that hang over the country regarding national security.

Based on recent testimony of US military officials before his committee, Skelton said he understands that “should a major unexpected contingency occur today, it could not be answered in a timely fashion.”

“This worries me to death,” he told reporters April 29 during a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C. “We are in dire need of upgrading our readiness. Our committee is making a valiant attempt to do that and it is an ongoing struggle with the continuous drain of forces and effort in the Middle East, both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The armed forces today are better trained, motivated and equipped—when deployed—than historically, but the strain of years of war, especially in Iraq, is taking a tremendous toll, he said. Accordingly, at some point, a pullout from Iraq has to be one option on the table to deal with the readiness situation, Skelton said.

"At some point, the military is not going to be able to fully fulfill its missions, particularly if we have some unforeseen circumstance arise,” he said.

That said, the US must prevail in Afghanistan, Skelton said. “We can’t come out there unsuccessful,” he said. “That is the genesis of the attack on the United States. That should be the No. 1 priority [compared to Iraq] and it worries me that that is not the No. 1 priority of the Administration.”

Commenting on other military matters, Skelton said the upcoming Congressionally mandated review of the roles and missions of the services is a priority. “It has to be done,” he said, because without it, “you end up with duplication, uncertainty.” He acknowledged that it might lead to animosities surfacing among the services, but that is nothing new and time heals wounds.

“Will it damage the relationship? Probably. But they will get over it. They did it before. Goldwater-Nichols was a greater problem, but they got over it. And it changed the culture,” he said.

Thus far, he has every indication to believe that the services are taking the issue “seriously,” he said. 

Skelton said he anticipates committee members adding amendments to the Fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill dealing with the Air Force’s KC-X tanker contract award. He said he would prefer that he and his colleagues would hold off on taking any action until the Government Accountability Office rules in mid June on Boeing’s protest of USAF’s award to Northrop Grumman.

However, since the HASC will mark up the bill prior to that, this likely will not occur.

“[It] is a concern that we might get the cart before the horse,” he said. “I would hope to minimize the discussion ... until at least the GAO has played out its protest.”

He acknowledged Boeing’s right to protest. Otherwise he said he has purposely remained quiet on the issue “because I am the chairman and I have to keep two balls on the air at the same time on this.”

The Congressman said he has not been tuned in close enough yet to know if he will support funding additional C-17s, C-130s and F-22s in the upcoming debate on the next emergency war spending package for Fiscal 2008.