WASHINGTON—The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the U.S. Marine Corps, forcing the service to take extraordinary measures to bolster both manpower and equipment.
On Tuesday, the Marines announced plans to recall as many as 2,500 inactive reservists to involuntary active-duty service to meet manpower needs, the first such call-up since nearly 2,700 Marines were recalled to active-duty before U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
The announcement coincided with a report to be issued Wednesday by two military experts who say that the Marines are having to borrow equipment from non-deployed units and pre-positioned stockpiles to replace tanks, trucks, armored vehicles and other hardware worn out by more than three years of combat duty in Iraq.
The two events are the latest signs that the U.S. military is having difficulty maintaining its combat readiness with the Iraq war well into its fourth year.
A Marines spokeswoman denied that the Marines are having difficulty finding recruits or volunteers for war-zone duty. Instead, Maj. Gabrielle Chapin said the service is looking to deepen the availability of Marines with specific training. "What we do need is a pool of very specific skill sets to fill critical job specialties," she said.
Yet the call-up is a rare one for the smallest of the country's four military services, which has always prided itself on its recruitment and retention record. Less than 180,000 Marines serve on active duty, but the Corps has consistently met or exceeded its recruiting and re-enlistment goals for years, even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on.
Those expected to receive involuntary activation notices include infantry and other combat specialties, communications and intelligence specialists, combat engineers and military police, the Marines said. Marines in their first and last years of inactive reserve status will be excluded from the recall. Those recalled to service will get at least five months' notice.
The Marines currently have about 59,000 men and women serving in what's officially known as the individual ready reserve—former active-duty service members who still have time to serve on their mandatory eight-year commitment. Marine officials said they don't expect to activate more than 2,500.
Democrats, who have been pushing for a change of course in Iraq, said the announcement illustrates again how the war is straining U.S. military forces.
"After bravely serving our nation, often for more than one tour, these men and women are being asked to once again shoulder a heavy burden," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of Bush administration policy on Iraq. "The drain on our soldiers, their families and the military's resources caused by today's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be addressed immediately or there will be severe long-term consequences for the nation and our military."
The move follows similar call-ups by the Army, which has recalled about 5,100 former soldiers back to service since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Most of those have been activated since 2004, and 2,100 remain on active duty, according to Army officials.
The Iraq war also has put unprecedented wear and tear on the Marine Corps' trucks, tanks and other combat equipment, according to a report by the Center for American Progress and the Lexington Institute, two policy research groups that frequently study national security issues.
The war has forced the Marines to keep about 40 percent of its ground combat equipment, 50 percent of its communications gear and 20 percent of its aircraft in Iraq, the report says.
Helicopters fly two to three times more hours than they should, tanks are being used four times as much as anticipated, and Humvees are being driven an average of 480 miles a month, 70 percent of which is off-road.
The harsh desert and combat losses are chewing up other gear at nine times their planned rates. Humvees that were expected to last 14 years need to be replaced after only four years in the extreme conditions of the Iraqi desert, the report says.
"This war in Iraq, in addition to the human cost, has a very heavy equipment cost, and this bill is going to have to be paid for years to come," said Larry J. Korb, a former Pentagon official and co-author of the report.
Because of the situation, the Marines, like the Army, have been forced to take equipment from non-deployed units and pre-positioned stockpiles in Europe and elsewhere to maintain sufficient combat gear for units in Iraq, seriously hampering their ability to respond to a crisis elsewhere, said Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
"If, heaven forbid, Korea breaks out or something like that, you wouldn't be able to do as well as you should," he said.
Korb and co-author Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, estimate that the Marines will have to spend at least $12 billion to replenish their ground and aviation equipment. That figure will grow by $5 billion for every year the Marines remain in Iraq.
Korb and Thompson reached similar conclusions about the Army in a report issued in April.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.