WASHINGTON (AFP) - Five years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the US military is flagging under long and repeated deployments that have taken a toll on troops and hurt its readiness to deal with other crises.
"People are tired," is the way Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed it up at a congressional hearing last month.
The third longest war in US history — after the Revolutionary War and Vietnam — has forged a battle-hardened ground force with bitterly won experience in counter-insurgency warfare.
But military leaders and experts say it also has left the US Army in particular, but also the marines, with major equipment shortfalls, inadequate training in conventional warfare, and not enough troops.
Shot through it all is the human fallout from combat and the stress of repeated deployments: record suicide rates, rising divorces and mental health problems, according to army health reports.
Some troops are in their third and fourth combat deployments.
"What it means is that the army coming out of Iraq will be a shadow of its former self," said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and senior analyst at the Center for American Progress.
Korb said it will take at least a decade for the army to recover, assuming that the United States continues to draw down its "surge" force in Iraq, which currently number 162,000.
Estimates of the cost of resetting the army's forces and replacing or repairing war damaged equipment runs to 240 billion dollars, according to congressional leaders.
And Korb said the army could face personnel problems in coming years from having lowered quality standards to meet its recruiting goals.
"On the other hand we've got the most experienced military we've had in many a decade," said Bernard Rostker, a former undersecretary of defense for readiness in the Clinton administration.
"Soldiers who are back in Iraq three or four times, believe me they have learned. That stands us very well. So that on the readiness scale would have to be very high," he said.
Rostker said the all-volunteer force has been surprisingly resilient.
Many had thought it would break after the second or third rotation in Iraq, he said. "But that wasn't the case."
"All in all, Yes, the army is tired; yes, the army has comported itself extremely well," he said.
"Nobody expected a volunteer force to do what it has done. It has learned over time and I think you see that in the surge, and hopefully we'll be able to bring some troops home," he said.
Troop levels in Iraq are supposed to fall to 140,000 by July, offering hope of relief.
But the security situation in Iraq, while dramatically improved over last year, remains fragile and commanders are calling for a pause in the drawdown after July.
The question facing military leaders is how long the army can withstand the current pace of deployments.
"Our soldiers are deploying too frequently. We can't sustain that," General George Casey, the army's chief of staff told Congress recently. "It's impacting on their families, it's impacting on their mental health. We just can't keep going at the rate that we're going."
Casey's immediate goal is to reduce tour lengths from 15 months to 12 to ease the strain on the force, which he expects to be able to do in July when the "surge" troops are out of Iraq.
Eventually, as the army expands in size or if more troops come out of Iraq, the army hopes to increase the time soldiers have at home between deployments from 12 months to 15.
But, as Army Secretary Pete Geren warned recently, "We are consuming readiness as fast as we build it."
The almost exclusive focus on counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the short turnaround between deployments, has meant that most military units have no time to train for conventional warfare.
Mullen told Congress last month there is "significant risk" in the US military's readiness to respond to a crisis elsewhere in the world.
Concerns about the situation appear to be widespread within the military as well, even though morale remains high.
A recent survey of 3,437 current and retired officers of the rank of major or above found that 60 percent believe the US military is weaker today than it was five years ago.
Eighty-eight percent thought the war has stretched it "dangerously thin", according to the survey by the Center for a New American Security and Foreign Policy magazine.
, obtained via: , March 16, 2008, 10:08am