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Is the U.S Military Overstretched?


With more than 250,000 American troops deployed in nearly 130 countries, many analysts are questioning whether the United States military is stretched in ways that could undermine its future capabilities should new threats arise.

In his annual report to Congress last May, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained the military to a point where it runs a higher risk of not being able to quickly and easily defeat potential enemies.

U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recruitment shortfalls in some branches of the armed forces, such as the Army and National Guard, have alarmed some observers who warn that the military is overburdened and overstretched.

Charles Pena, Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, says the current system used to repeatedly rotate and redeploy troops serving in Iraq over extended periods of time could negatively impact America’s all-volunteer armed forces. He adds, "This may be the legacy of the Iraq War, that we will have a very different army in particular, than we did before we went to war in Iraq. It’s too early to say exactly what might happen. But certainly there are many troubling and worrisome signs that we may be doing real damage to the United States Army.”

Mr. Pena explains that the current strain may discourage new volunteers from enlisting, thereby weakening the military’s future capabilities. Other analysts say that while the U.S. military is probably using all available manpower, it is not overstretched and continues to have some spare capacity.

Downsized Military Adds to Strain

But policy analyst Jack Spencer of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation reminds foreign policy critics that some stress is to be expected because the United States is on a war footing. He says, "Certainly, the U.S. military is stressed right now. But we’re engaged in the global war on terrorism. And I would suggest that we don’t need a military so large that we’re able to take on such a huge endeavor - - one that is vital to the national interest - - without feeling a little bit of stress.”

Most analysts say the United States’ armed forces are still recovering from the 1990s, when troop levels and budgets were slashed even as they took on peacekeeping missions in countries like Somalia and Bosnia.

Military sociologist David Segal of the University of Maryland says America’s armed forces are being used in ways for which they weren’t originally structured. The result, he says, has caused a disconnect between military force capabilities and national security policy.

"We now have a force structure that is an artifact of decisions that were made during the Cold War to support a national security strategy of deterrence and defense. We downsized from there and moved in the 1990s from deterrence and defense to participation in contingency operations in places like Kosovo, as well as peacekeeping in places like the Sinai. Then we sort of slipped from contingency operations to continuous operations during the period when we were downsizing without considering whether we could actually do that. And I think the answer is that we can’t.”

Transforming America's Military

Most analysts agree that the modernization of the United States military, which was accelerated by the Bush administration, is necessary to deal with the non-traditional type of threats America faces in a post-Cold War world. Michael Noonan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia adds that structural and operational changes in the armed forces will also ease some of the current deployment strains.

Mr. Noonan says,“The plan is to build more rotational base that would allow more units to be out in the field. Traditionally, you need three units to field one unit. In other words, you have one unit that’s deployed right now, one unit that’s recovering from deployment, and a third unit that is training up to be deployed. So this expansion of capability within the Army, I think, is meant to address this overstretch issue by cutting down on logistical tails, and other things of the past that were dependent of division-structure. And now they’re moving to a smaller brigade building-block structure.”

Many experts say it is too early to say how far the Pentagon’s efforts will go in addressing non-traditional threats like al-Qaida terrorists. They note, for example, that Special Forces units are better suited than a traditional army to hunt down small pockets of guerrillas in remote parts of the world.

Global Terrorism and Old Threats

However, some analysts warn against putting too much emphasis on non-traditional enemies because most potential threats are still posed by countries with conventional militaries. While the United States does not currently face a state-based adversary like the former Soviet Union, analyst Michael Noonan says the U.S. military’s nation-building operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which require large numbers of troops and long-term commitments, make it difficult for the armed forces to take on additional duties.

“If it was just going to b e purely a punitive engagement, then I think we can certainly handle it, particularly through the assets of the Air Force and the Navy have. If the question is: ‘Are we going to try to overthrow a standing government and occupy?’ then I think the answer probably is ‘no’. But I don’t really see that contingency coming to bear. And one of the reasons for that is there comes a point where you just can’t generate enough forces for those types of operations, I think.”

Attracting Recruits Without a Draft

Some analysts also argue that the ongoing violence in Iraq has affected the Army’s ability to attract new recruits because some volunteers are choosing branches of the service that are less involved in the fighting. This is one of the reasons why the University of Maryland’s David Segal says the types of incentives recruiters use today may need to be changed.

“They’re essentially using economic incentives which work very well in peacetime", says professor Segal. "They’ve increased the economic bonuses for enlistment. And I think they’ve reached the limits of the degree to which that is going to pay off for them. I think that if they told immigrants that serving in the military was a pass to citizenship and would lead to expedited citizenship, which a lot of immigrants value, then I think using a value-based approach to recruitment would be more productive.”

Most analysts discount the possibility that the draft will be re-instated, especially given that military recruiters have not tapped into all segments of American society, including immigrant communities. But some observers say that the draft cannot be discounted as a possibility for beefing up the number of American troops.

Many experts point out that it may be difficult for the United States to muster the necessary manpower and resources should a new threat arise. Others say they hope that a possible reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq within the next year may alleviate some of the stress on America’s armed forces, and help replenish its capabilities.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.