The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated concern about strain on the U.S. military and how long the United States can continue to keep large forces in combat. Among the concerns is that combat units are so overworked and so focused on fighting insurgencies that they may not be prepared to fight other conflicts that may break out around the world. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The United States has had troops in combat in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003. Aside from the thousands of dead and wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, there is growing concern that the strain on the force could have implications for the future of U.S. military readiness.
The top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, says it is something he watches closely.
"I think we must pay attention to that every single day, because it's not a precise point on a curve where we can say when you get to this point, something good or bad is going to happen," he said.
General Pace and other senior officers acknowledge that the deployment schedule is putting a strain on U.S. troops, particularly combat soldiers and marines. Last month, the Defense Department announced it would lengthen the tours of duty for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan from 12 months to 15 months, with 12 months of vacation and training between deployments. The marines spend seven months at a time in combat, with six months at home.
Former Clinton Administration defense department official Michelle Flournoy says the operational tempo has already left U.S. ground forces in a precarious position.
"We're already at the point today where we do not have a reserve of ground forces that is adequate to respond to the full range of contingencies that we might face elsewhere in the world," she said.
Flournoy, who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, also worries that during their time at home, troops are only training to return to Iraq or Afghanistan and fight an insurgency, sacrificing training on other basic and potentially essential military skills.
"The training is so focused on the tasks that are being conducted in Iraq that a lot of the other war-fighting tasks may be neglected. And I'll give you an example. You can find members of artillery units in both the army and the Marine Corps who've never fired artillery because every tour they've gone on since their enlistments has been in Iraq and they've been focused on counterinsurgency," she said.
Current and former military officers have expressed similar worries.
Among them is retired Major General John Batiste, who served in Iraq and has become an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration's war policy.
"At this operational tempo, we are going to seriously damage our army and Marine Corps. Every army brigade is either deployed, preparing to deploy or redeploying. There is no strategic reserve," he said.
On Friday, the Pentagon reported on another set of concerns about the state of the U.S. military. Officials released the results of two surveys, conducted last August and October, of the mental health of troops in Iraq and focusing on the soldiers and marines facing the most combat.
Major General Gale Pollock, head of the army's medical command, says the surveys indicate that repeated and long combat tours have a significant impact on the troops' mental health, and the impact is worse on soldiers because they have longer deployments than the marines.
"Not all soldiers and marines deployed to Iraq are at equal risk for screening positive for a mental health symptom. The level of combat is the main determinant of a soldier or marine's mental health status," said Pollock.
General Pollock reports these first-ever mental health surveys of troops in combat indicate that mental strain contributes to the deployed troops' higher-than-average suicide rate, and also to their willingness to abuse civilians, in violation of military regulations. Ten percent of the troops said they had abused civilians, and half said they would not report such abuse if they saw it. In addition, more than a third said they would condone the torture of a detainee if they thought it would result in information that would save the life of a fellow soldier or marine.
All this adds to concerns about the long-term impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the readiness of the U.S. military for any future conflict. But General Pace, the top U.S. military officer, points out that while active duty ground combat units have been used heavily in recent years, the United States still has a large number of active and reserve troops ready to fight if needed.
"The United States armed forces have enormous power and capacity. We have enormous residual capacity," said Pace. "We have the vast power of our Navy and our Air Force still available to take on any potential foes. There is zero doubt about the outcome. It would simply take us longer than we would like to defeat any potential enemy."
And analyst Michelle Flournoy acknowledges that even with all the problems she sees, the U.S. military still has the capacity to inflict significant damage on any potential enemy.
"To be fair, we still have a highly ready and powerful air, navy, special operations forces, etc. And we still have a very powerful ground force. But I think the fact that our ground forces are being stretched so thin, that they are tied down, bogged down, in current operations, I think there may be some rogue leaders who would perhaps say, 'Well, if I'm going to make mischief, now might be a good time,'" said Michelle Flournoy.
The state of the U.S. military has been part of the debate in Washington about when to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Senior generals and admirals acknowledge privately that it would be difficult, although not impossible, to deploy troops to another conflict or to sustain the surge of more than 20,000 extra U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this time next year. That puts even more pressure on the current effort to establish security in Baghdad and negotiate Iraqi political reconciliation so that U.S. forces can begin to withdraw from Iraq without leaving a chaotic situation behind.