Wars deplete training, gear of U.S. troops, officers say

February 18, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are draining the U.S. strategic military reserve, officers say, leaving combat brigades and battalions unable to respond quickly to international crises and corroding the military power that in the past has strengthened America's diplomacy abroad.

With U.S. forces locked into a grinding rotation through the war zones and equipment wearing out fast, the Army and Marine Corps are struggling to keep units that are between combat tours trained and equipped - and mostly failing, senior officers acknowledge.

In order to equip the tens of thousands of troops ordered by President Bush to "surge" to Iraq this spring, units that make up the strategic reserve are having to give up weapons, armored Humvees, night vision goggles, roadside bomb jammers and other critical gear, military officers said.

The pace of deployments, which leaves Army units barely a year between 12-month combat tours and Marines less than seven months, also means there is scant time to train. Practicing for large-scale mechanized warfare has become a thing of the past, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, has said.

"The forces that are not deployed to combat ... have substantial equipping holes. They are not trained to the level they should be at, and so, therefore, they are unready for high-intensity combat," Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, responsible for equipping the Army, recently told reporters.

Congressional Democrats are seizing on the readiness problem as an argument in their effort to constrain the new deployment to Iraq.

Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a retired Marine and leading Democratic voice on military affairs, wants to impose troop training and equipping standards that would have the effect of slowing the flow of U.S. troops to Iraq.

Such legislation would build on a growing concern in Congress about the strategic repercussions of the Iraq war.

"Our military is over-committed in Iraq, and is ill-equipped and ill-positioned to respond to many of the emerging crises elsewhere in the world," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a House speech last week. "This is an unacceptable level of strategic risk. ... Unfortunately, it is the magnificent men and women of our military who will pay the price for that failure."

Freshman House Democrat Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a retired three-star Navy admiral who commanded a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf and worked as a strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the "tragedy" of the Iraq war is "the real strategic impact on our Army that for so many years has prided itself on its ability to respond rapidly to any contingency."

Political issue or not, the erosion of American combat power is so severe that some senior officers are refusing to talk openly about it. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, requested at a congressional hearing last week that readiness questions be deferred until the panel could meet in a nonpublic session.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, admonished a reporter asking about declining combat readiness that "there are other audiences" listening that might draw the wrong conclusions.

"Our potential enemies around the world should not miscalculate," he told a Pentagon briefing. "If there was another threat, we would freeze the units that are in Iraq and Afghanistan in place and mobilize our reserve and bring online the enormous capacity of the United States."

At present, 15 of the Army's 41 brigade combat teams are in Iraq, along with two of the Marine Corps' six regimental combat teams. About 40 percent of the most modern U.S. ground combat equipment is in the combat zone, leaving troops back in the states short of tanks, armored Humvees, M4 carbines, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, .50-caliber machine guns and radios, military officers said.

The "surge" of five brigades and supporting units will leave 21 Army brigades and four Marine regiments, each with between 2,500 and 5,000 troops, theoretically available for emergencies, Pentagon officials said.

In a crisis, U.S. military strategy calls for these troops to be airlifted near a combat zone and to take up pre-positioned stockpiles of armor, weapons, ammunition and rations to sustain them in the first weeks of combat.

But those stocks have been depleted to equip troops in Iraq. That means that, in a crisis, troops could be deployed only to find there weren't enough tanks and machine guns and rations to sustain them in combat.

The Army, for example, normally keeps two ships at sea, each with a complete set of gear for a 3,500-man heavy-armored brigade. Last year it unloaded one of those ships and used the gear in Iraq, leaving the Army's emergency stocks short of critical equipment, according to the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress.

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