( Lat ) - Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the high and growing demand for U.S. troops there and in Afghanistan has left ground forces in the United States short of the training, personnel and equipment that would be vital to fight a major ground conflict elsewhere, senior U.S. military and government officials acknowledge.
More troubling, the officials say, is that it will take years for the Army and Marine Corps to recover from what some officials privately have called a ``death spiral,'' in which the ever-more-rapid pace of war-zone rotations has consumed 40 percent of their total gear, wearied troops and left no time to train to fight anything other than the insurgencies now at hand.
The risk to the nation is serious and deepening, senior officers warn, because the U.S. military now lacks a large strategic reserve of ground troops ready to respond quickly and decisively to potential foreign crises, whether the internal collapse of Pakistan, a conflict with Iran or an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. Air and naval power can only go so far in compensating for infantry, artillery and other land forces, they said. An immediate concern is that critical Army overseas equipment stocks for use in another conflict have been depleted by the recent troop increases in Iraq, they said.
``We have a strategy right now that is outstripping the means to execute it,'' Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, described as ``stark'' the level of readiness of Army units in the United States, which would be called on if another war breaks out. ``The readiness continues to decline of our next-to-deploy forces,'' Cody told the House Armed Services Committee's readiness panel last week. ``And those forces, by the way, are ... also your strategic reserve.''
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked last month by a House panel whether he was comfortable with the preparedness of Army units in the United States. He stated simply: ``No ... I am not comfortable.''
``You take a lap around the globe--you could start any place: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Venezuela, Colombia, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, North Korea, back around to Pakistan, and I probably missed a few. There's no dearth of challenges out there for our armed forces,'' Pace warned in his testimony. He said the nation faces increased risk because of shortfalls in troops, equipment and training.
In earlier House testimony, Pace said the military, using the Navy, Air Force and reserves, could handle one of three major contingencies, involving North Korea or--although he did not name them--Iran or China. But, he said, ``It will not be as precise as we would like, nor will it be on the timelines that we would prefer, because we would then, while engaged in one fight, have to reallocate resources and remobilize the Guard and reserves.''
Pace said the unexpected demand for more troops in Iraq--from the 10 brigades that commanders projected last year they would need by the end of 2006, to the 20 brigades scheduled to be there by June--prompted him to recommend permanently adding 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps, saying it would ``make a large difference in our ability to be prepared for unforeseen contingencies.''
Indeed, the recent increase of more than 32,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has pushed already severe readiness problems to what some officials and lawmakers consider a crisis point. Schoomaker said last week that sustaining the troop increase in Iraq beyond August would be ``a challenge.'' The Marines' commandant, Gen. James Conway, expressed concern to defense reporters last week that it would bring the Marine Corps ``right on the margin'' of breaking the minimum time at home for Marines between combat tours. U.S. commanders in Iraq say they may need to keep troop levels elevated into early 2008.
The troop increase has also created an acute shortfall in the Army's equipment stored overseas--known as ``pre-positioned stock''--which would be critical to outfit U.S. combat forces quickly should another conflict erupt, officials said.
The Army should have five full combat brigades' worth of such equipment: two stocks in Kuwait, one in South Korea, and two aboard ships in Guam and at the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean. But the Army had to empty the afloat stocks to support the troop increase in Iraq, and the Kuwait stocks are being used as units rotate in and out of the country. Only the South Korea stock is close to complete, according to military and government officials.
``Without the pre-positioned stocks, we would not have been able to meet the surge requirement,'' Schoomaker said. ``It will take us two years to rebuild those stocks. That's part of my concern about our strategic depth.''
``The status of our Army prepositioned stock ... is bothersome,'' Cody said last week.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers who received classified briefings last week on the stocks and overall Army readiness voiced alarm. ``I'm deeply concerned,'' said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who last week asked the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office to investigate the stocks ``as a matter of vital importance to national defense.''
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, chairman of the committee's readiness panel, said: ``I have seen the classified-only readiness reports. And based on those reports, I believe that we as a nation are at risk of major failure, should our Army be called to deploy to an emerging threat.''
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who attended the briefing, said, ``We are at a crisis point across the board.'' And Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said, ``This nation has got to replenish and fix what is soon going to be broken.''
Equipment is also lacking among Army units in the United States, the vast majority of which are rated ``not ready'' by the Army, based on measures of available gear, training and personnel, according to senior military officers and government officials. Active-duty Army combat brigades in the United States face shortages of heavy, medium and light tactical vehicles such as Humvees; radios; night-vision goggles; and some weapons, Cody said.
The shortages have deepened as scarce equipment and personnel are funneled to those units next in line to deploy overseas, creating ever-bigger holes in the units that will leave later. ``It's like a hurricane drawing everything into the center of the eye,'' said a senior Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
``For the National Guard, those shortages are even more,'' Cody said. Army National Guard figures show that 88 percent of its units are ``not ready.'' Yet National Guard combat brigades--four of which have been notified already--will be increasingly called upon next year to relieve the active-duty troops in Iraq, with the Army Guard and Reserve expected to grow from 20 percent of the force to 30 percent, officials said.
And unlike before the Iraq war, the Army does not currently have a brigade ready to deploy within hours to an overseas hot spot, officials say.
The increasingly rapid tempo of rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan is also constraining the length and focus of training as active-duty Army combat brigades and Marine combat battalions spend at least as much time in the war zone as at home. As a result, all the training is geared toward counterinsurgencies, while skills important for other major combat operations atrophy.
The Marine Corps is not training for amphibious, mountain or jungle warfare, nor conducting large-scale live-fire maneuvers, Conway said. ``We've got a little bit of a blindside there,'' he said. The Marine Corps and Army both lack sufficient manpower to give troops a break from the combat zone long enough to complete their full spectrum of training, senior officials said.
``We're only able to train them ... for counterinsurgency operations,'' Cody told the House panel last week. ``They're not trained to full-spectrum operations.''
Under current Army and Marine Corps plans, it will take two to three years after the Iraq war ends and about $17 billion a year to restore their equipment levels. It will take five years and at least $75 billion for the Army to increase its active-duty ranks to 547,000 soldiers, up from the current 509,000, and for the Marine Corps to increase its numbers to 202,000, up from 180,000.
``Boots on the ground matter,'' the senior Army officer said. ``If they are tied down, your ability to terminate a conflict on your terms, earlier, may not be there.''