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Army reaching breaking point, experts warn

WASHINGTON—A pair of reports by outside experts in the last two days warn that the Army has been stretched thin by repeated combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and could soon reach the breaking point.

The first, a report on the Iraq war that was commissioned by the Pentagon and made public Tuesday, said defense officials risk "breaking the force" if current troop levels are maintained in both countries without increasing the size of the Army or slowing the pace of deployments.

The second, issued Wednesday by Democrats on Capitol Hill, warned that unless the strain on the Army and Marine Corps is relieved soon, "it will have highly corrosive and potentially long-term effects on the force." Over time, it argued, the services would be weakened and the country would be more vulnerable to potential enemies.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rejected both reports, saying that "it's clear that those comments do not reflect the current situation. They are either out of date or just misdirected."

Rumsfeld said he hadn't read either report. Recounting the quick initial victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said the Army wasn't broken, "but enormously capable."

"It is a force that has been deployed, functioned effectively and, as I say, battle-hardened," Rumsfeld said. He dismissed the Democrats' suggestion that Iraq and Afghanistan had left the United States with inadequate ground forces to counter potential enemies elsewhere.

There are 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 19,000 in Afghanistan. Those numbers could drop in the coming year if security conditions improve. Almost all of the combat forces from the Army, National Guard and Marine Corps have served at least one tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and some units are on their second or third deployments.

Both reports warned that current troop levels and the pace of operations can't be sustained without risking significant recruiting and retention problems. They blamed the crisis in part on the Bush administration for not sending enough troops to secure Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, allowing the country to descend into chaos. They also suggested that the future of the all-volunteer Army could be threatened unless the problems are addressed.

"Solving these problems will be costly, but unless they are fully addressed soon, our nation is at risk of not having a military sufficiently capable of responding to future threats," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The Democrats' report, prepared by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, called for increasing the size of the Army by 30,000 soldiers, reorganizing the National Guard and Army Reserve, filling equipment shortages caused by the wars and reorganizing the active-duty Army to fight terrorists and insurgencies and rebuild war-ravaged countries.

The report released Tuesday was written under contract for the Pentagon by Andrew F. Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who's the director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy research group. Krepinevich suggested that the Army doesn't have enough combat brigades to sustain its 12-month rotations for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If it rotates its troops too frequently into combat, the Army risks having many of its soldiers decide that a military career is too arduous or too risky an operation for them and their families to pursue," he wrote. "How often can a soldier be put in harm's way and still desire to remain in the Army?"

Krepinevich said that the Army needs enough brigades so that soldiers spend between one-third to one-fifth of their service deployed.

The active-duty Army has 12 of its 37 combat brigades deployed either to Iraq, Afghanistan or South Korea. Seven National Guard brigades are in Iraq.

"Making matters worse, unless the Army is willing to stress its rotation base further, it effectively has no strategic reserve," Krepinevich wrote.

Cracks are already appearing in the Army's recruiting and retention, indications of the larger problem, he said. The Army fell short about 6,700 recruits in fiscal year 2005, its biggest shortfall since 1979, its worst year ever.

In response, the Army has begun to accept more high school dropouts and Category IV recruits—those who make the lowest acceptable scores on the military's entrance exam. The Army has raised the age limit for new recruits from 35 to 42, offered bigger bonuses, increased its advertising budget and put more recruiters on the street.

So far, the Army is making its recruiting goals for fiscal year 2006. The Army's re-enlistment rate is its highest in five years.

But divorce rates are up, "an indication that repeated deployments are placing severe strains on military families," Krepinevich wrote.

"Thus, while the administration has declared that any drawdown in U.S. forces must be `conditions-based,' it appears that these conditions include not only progress in defeating the insurgency, but also the need to reduce the strain on the center of gravity that is the American soldier," he added.

The Democrats' report recapped many of these problems. It warned that the Army will "experience great difficulty" in filling its planned force structure and providing enough soldiers needed to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan unless recruiting improves. The Army is currently short 18,000 soldiers in its junior enlisted grades, according to the report.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ARMY

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