WASHINGTON -- Two years after the United States launched a war in Iraq with a crushing display of power, a guerrilla conflict is grinding away at the resources of the U.S. military and casting uncertainty over the fitness of the all-volunteer force, according to senior military leaders, lawmakers and defense experts.
Unexpectedly heavy demands of sustained ground combat are depleting military manpower and gear faster than they can be fully replenished. Shortfalls in recruiting and backlogs in needed equipment are taking a toll, and growing numbers of units have been broken apart or taxed by repeated deployments, particularly in the Army National Guard and Reserve.
"What keeps me awake at night is, what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007?" Gen. Richard Cody, Army vice chief of staff, told a Senate hearing this week.
The Iraq war has also led to a drop in the overall readiness of U.S. ground forces to handle threats at home and abroad, forcing the Pentagon to accept new risks -- even as military planners prepare for a global anti-terrorism campaign that administration officials say could last generations.
Stretched by Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States lacks a sufficiently robust ability to put large numbers of "boots on the ground" in the case of a major emergency elsewhere, such as the Korean Peninsula, in the view of some Republican and Democratic lawmakers and some military leaders.
They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army. "The U.S. military will respond if there are vital threats, but will it respond with as many forces as it needs, with equipment that is in excellent condition? The answer is no," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.
To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective is holding up better than many analysts expected. U.S. forces are the most combat-hardened the nation has had for decades, and re-enlistment levels have generally remained high. The war has also spurred technological innovation, while providing momentum for a reorganization of a military that in many ways is still designed for the Cold War.
Moreover, military leaders are taking steps to ease stress on the troops by temporarily boosting ranks; rebalancing forces to add badly needed infantry, military police and civil affairs troops; and employing civilians where possible. On Friday, defense officials worried about recruiting announced they will raise the age limit, from 34 to 40, for enlistment in the Army Guard and Reserve. The Pentagon is spending billions to repair and replace battle-worn equipment and buy extra armor, radios, weapons and other gear.
Yet such remedies take time and no one, including senior U.S. and defense officials, can predict how long the all-volunteer force can sustain this accelerated wartime pace. Recruiting troubles, especially, threaten the force at its core. But with a return to the draft widely viewed as economically and politically untenable, senior military leaders say the nation's security depends on drumming up broader public support for service.
"If we don't get this thing right, the risk is off the scale," said Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, director of the Army National Guard, the military's most stressed branch.
At dusk the night the Iraq war started in March 2003, Staff Sgt. Spurgeon Shelley was near the Kuwait border, watching the orange glow of missiles streak overhead as he guided one Marine ammunition convoy after another north across the line of departure.
Manning a dirt berm while wearing his gas mask and full chemical suit, Shelley was determined to make it home alive to see his daughter, Lena, 2. "I'm gonna do whatever I have to, to survive," he told himself.
Today, Shelley is on duty in what he calls a "one-man fighting hole" on another battlefield -- a Marine recruiting station in Lexington Park, Md. -- with a mission to persuade young men and women to enlist and likely go to war.
The active-duty Army and Marine Corps, and five of six reserve components of the military, all failed to meet at least some recruiting goals during the first quarter of fiscal year 2005, according to Defense Department statistics. The active-duty shortfalls came amid rising concern among Army and Marine officials that their services risk missing annual recruiting quotas for the first time this decade.
Increasingly, surveys show that the main reason young American adults avoid military service is that they -- and to a greater degree their parents -- fear that enlisting could mean death, injury or a war-zone deployment. One survey showed such fears nearly doubling among respondents from 2000 to 2004.
Indeed, today's recruiting problems reflect a widespread concern dating from the conception of the all-volunteer force in 1973 -- that a military composed wholly of volunteers would not supply adequate troops for a lengthy ground war.
But confidence in the force has since grown as it gained discipline and professionalism. Meanwhile, overseas missions proliferated, even as the military downsized drastically. The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended, and has 18 now.
The military is seeking to rebuild forces, adding 30,000 Army soldiers and 5,000 Marines. But the war isn't the only obstacle. Rising college attendance and an expanding job market are giving high school graduates more choices. "It's times like this when unemployment is reaching 5 percent that is a critical level" for undercutting recruitment, says Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the Defense Department.
To meet its targets, the Army is considering expanding the use of enlistment bonuses of as much as $20,000. Both the Army and Marines are adding hundreds of new recruiters, who "will have to work very, very hard," Gilroy said.
Since 2001, the U.S. military has deployed more than 1 million troops for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 341,000, or nearly a third, serving two or more overseas tours.
Today, an entrenched insurgency in Iraq ties down 150,000 U.S. troops, inflicting upwards of 1,500 deaths so far -- more than 10 times the number killed in the major combat operations that President Bush declared ended on May 1, 2003.
Because of spreading violence from the insurgency, coupled with a smaller foreign coalition than was hoped for, the U.S. Army and Marines have in particular scrambled to keep a force of roughly 17 brigades in Iraq until now, rather than draw down to eight brigades or even be out altogether, according to previous military projections.
Lt. Gen. James Lovelace, the Army's operations chief, is a kind of circus master responsible for juggling limited units and equipment and prioritizing who does what. icks off the far-flung corners from which the Army has had to muster forces.
"We've deployed units of the Old Guard!" he says, referring to the first-ever deployment of the ceremonial guard from Arlington Cemetery, when a company was dispatched to Djibouti last year. "We've reached up inside of Alaska and grabbed the forces up there," he says. "Korea! Who would have ever thought that we would have deployed a combat formation?" he says, referring to a brigade sent from South Korea to Iraq.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.