WASHINGTON—The war in Iraq has become such a drain on the Army and the Marines that it's seriously damaged the U.S. military's ability to respond if other crises arise, two Democratic congressmen said Thursday.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Reps. John Murtha, D-Pa., and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, warned that because funding for the military has been siphoned off to pay for the war, the Army and Marines are running dangerously short of the necessary troops, equipment and training to stay combat ready.
"This makes deployments impossible unless we are prepared to put our troops at risk," said Abercrombie, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "It also makes conducting homeland security or disaster response missions more difficult, if not unacceptable in terms of public confidence."
They said combat readiness for the Army especially had dropped to levels not seen since the end of the Vietnam War and would continue to deteriorate for as long as U.S. forces remained in Iraq. Because most of the active-duty U.S. ground forces are committed to the war, they said, the U.S. military lacks a strategic reserve to respond to other crises.
"We don't have a combat unit that is really trained to the point where it can be deployed," said Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "We don't have a strategic reserve unless you say the Navy and Air Force are strategic reserves."
Abercrombie listed several concerns:
_"Only a handful" of Army and Marine Corps units that aren't deployed are combat ready with enough troops, equipment and training needed to go to war.
_National Guard units have only one-third of their authorized equipment, including tanks, trucks, radios, armored vehicles and night-vision devices. Most of their best equipment has been left in Iraq.
_The Marines were forced to call back 2,500 reservists involuntarily, many of whom had already served in Iraq.
Murtha's concerns, as outlined in a 12-page report, were:
_Funding shortfalls have created backlogs at the Army's key repair depots. At Anniston Army Depot, Ala., 600 M1 tanks are awaiting repairs. At Red River Depot, Texas, 700 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and more than 450 trucks haven't been serviced. About 2,600 Humvees are awaiting repair at various depots, along with "tens of thousands" of small arms, radios and other key items.
_Pressure to meet recruiting goals forced the Army to increase the number of Category 4 recruits, the lowest acceptable category, from 2 percent to 4 percent of the annual goal in 2005. The Army also has allowed in more recruits with medical problems, moral issues or criminal records, an increase from 10 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2005. That figure could go as high as 18 percent in 2006.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, responding to the assertions, pointed to an Aug. 2 statement by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"The truth is, as anyone in the Army leadership will tell you, is that the Army today is vastly better than it was two, four, six or eight years ago," Rumsfeld said. "It has much more equipment, much better equipment, and it's better trained and more experienced, and it is a better Army."
But last month Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, refused to submit a budget after being told that he'd have to come up with a spending plan of $114 billion for fiscal 2008, a $2 billion cut from 2007.
Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, took issue with the assertions about Marine Corps readiness. "Every unit that is going to Iraq is combat ready," she said. "The Marine Corps is not taking any short cuts."
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, also differed with several of the assertions about the Army's readiness, saying the soldiers received all the equipment they needed.
Boyce said Schoomaker and other generals have been working with Congress to make sure there are enough funds to cover readiness, modernization and equipment repair.
Boyce acknowledged that waivers for recruits have increased recently, but said most of the waivers were for recruits who committed misdemeanors. Serious crime waivers remain below 1 percent, medical waivers have decreased and drug and alcohol waivers remain below 1 percent. He said positive results for drug screen tests have dropped from 2.13 percent in fiscal 2002 to 1.91 percent in fiscal 2005.
Boyce said that fewer than 4 percent of Army recruits are in Category 4, compared with 10 percent in the 1980s.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.