WASHINGTON—With an additional 120,000 troops having been ordered to start moving toward the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military may not have enough soldiers, tanks, warplanes and ships left to deal with a major emergency elsewhere, say in North Korea.
Sixty percent of Marine Corps power is already deployed overseas, mostly in Iraq. Half of the Navy's aircraft carrier battle groups and the bulk of the Air Force's B-1 and B-2 heavy bombers are engaged in the war. Four of 10 15,000-person Army divisions are in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, and elements of three other divisions are en route to the Persian Gulf.
One Army division is permanently stationed in South Korea, but it's not enough to hold off North Korea's million-man army, backed by thousands of artillery pieces that can fire chemical weapons. That leaves just two divisions in reserve, one in Hawaii and the other, still refitting after duty in Afghanistan, in upstate New York.
Leaders of the armed services say they have no doubt that the United States could meet another threat, or even several threats, in other parts of the world, including the Korean peninsula.
But with commitments in Colombia, a global war on terrorism and peacekeeping duties in Bosnia and Kosovo, some military leaders have begun to worry how far—and for how long—their resources can be stretched.
The 240,000 American military personnel in the Gulf region could be joined by tens of thousands of others over weeks or months. The eventual total is unknown outside of the war planners' offices, but some of the new arrivals will relieve those who've been on the front lines.
The total will certainly be fewer than the half-million personnel that served in the first Gulf War in 1991. But the Iraq war's impact could be much greater. The armed forces are much smaller than they were a dozen years ago, but America's military commitments are greater.
The Army had 18 divisions and 706,000 men and women at the time of the first Gulf War. Now it has 10 divisions and 476,000 people. The Navy had 580 ships then; now it has 306. The Air Force, which had 165 air wings in 1991, now has 91.
Former President Bill Clinton, along with the Congress, cut forces in anticipation of a "peace dividend" that would come with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration favored continued downsizing of the Army, and especially of its heavy armored and mechanized divisions, while wanting to rely more on special forces, high-tech weaponry and air power.
The administration still favors what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has called "lighter, faster, more agile forces," not more troops. Rumsfeld, in fact, has been openly criticized by some active duty and retired military commanders in recent days for underestimating Iraqi opposition, betting too heavily on precision-guided bombs and not sending enough ground troops, armor and artillery to the gulf.
Even before the start of the war in Iraq, some top military leaders were warning that the downsized force was becoming overextended.
Testifying before a House of Representatives subcommittee, Adm. William J. Fallon, the vice chief of naval operations, said "today's surge (in deployments) has put a significant strain on every Navy resource."
Fallon testified on March 18, the day before the first missiles landed on Baghdad.
The admiral was intent on letting Congress know just how expansive operations already had become.
"Nearly every ship in the Navy has deployed over the past year in support of combat operations, some twice," he said. "Two hundred seven of our 306 ships—representing 68 percent of our force—are under way, including seven of 12 carrier battle groups, 10 of 12 amphibious ready groups, and 33 of 54 attack submarines. The Navy and Marine Corps alone have nearly 600 aircraft forward-deployed in support of potential contingencies."
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Days before Fallon's testimony, Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Brown, the service's personnel chief, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee to address what he called a "crisis" in manpower, including the frequent and prolonged mobilizations of Air Force Reservists and Air National Guard members.
He said that with the stepped-up air patrols over the United States and the war on terrorists abroad, "we are stressed by the challenges."
Although it has lobbied for a bigger role in U.S. war plans—and gotten one in Iraq—the Marine Corps is stretched thin, too.
Of 175,000 active-duty Marines and 19,000 Reservists, 99,000 are deployed outside the United States, from the Middle East to Afghanistan to Okinawa to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. This includes 64,000 in Iraq and Kuwait.
If a new war began somewhere else, U.S. ground forces would have to come overwhelmingly from the Army.
"We conceivably could help out in another theater," a Marine official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But the Marine Corps, primarily, is a one-theater force."
Most of the Army is tied down, too, however. Units from seven of the 10 regular Army divisions already are in the gulf or have orders to head there.
Only the 25th Infantry Division, in Hawaii, and the 10th Mountain Division, which has returned to upstate New York from Afghanistan, are entirely on U.S. soil. The 2nd Division is permanently assigned to South Korea.
The 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga., is leading the battle in Iraq, along with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky. And the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, has opened a second front in northern Iraq.
The 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., has joined the battle against Iraqi guerrillas near An Nasiriyah, and other elements of the division are trying to root out terrorists in Afghanistan.
Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, are on airplanes to the gulf. Elements of the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions in Germany; the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, and the 2nd and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiments from Fort Polk, La. and Fort Carson, Colo., also have been ordered to mount up.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.