Top Officer Calls US Forces "Stressed"

By Anne Flaherty

The Associated Press

Wednesday 06 February 2008

Washington - The military's top uniformed officer says U.S. forces are "significantly stressed" by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously trying to stem the tide of violent extremism elsewhere.

"The pace of ongoing operations has prevented our forces from fully training for the full spectrum of operations and impacts our ability to be ready to counter future threats," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony prepared for delivery Wednesday.

Mullen's stern warnings are likely to become welcome political fodder for anti-war Democrats, who want legislation requiring that troops spend more time at home between combat tours. Last year's efforts to pass such a bill failed after intense lobbying by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who says it would do more harm than good and tie the hands of military commanders.

Mullen and Gates were to testify Wednesday in separate hearings of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. Copies of their prepared remarks were obtained in advance by The Associated Press.

In their testimony, Gates and Mullen ask Congress to support a $588.3 billion request for defense spending in the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.

Of that amount, $70 billion would go toward war spending, representing only a fraction of what the wars likely will cost. Defense officials say the money is expected to last until early 2009, when the next president takes over.

Much of the Pentagon's annual budget request is aimed at expanding the ranks of ground forces and improving their ability to fight. The spending blueprint allots $20.5 billion to boost the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers, to 532,400, and add 5,000 Marines to expand the Corps to 194,000.

Mullen says adding more troops to the payroll is a necessary step toward easing the strain on a force that cannot sustain the current pace of operations. According to Mullen, Army soldiers should be limited to yearlong combat tours, instead of 15-month deployments, and eventually be given two years at home between deployments, instead of just one. Marines should move to 14 months at home following seven-month deployments, he said.

"I am extremely concerned about the toll the current pace of operations is taking on them and on their families, on our equipment and on our ability to respond to crises and contingencies beyond ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Mullen also said violence in Iraq has "substantially decreased," but that Afghanistan is facing "a growing insurgency, increasing violence and a burgeoning drug trade fueled by widespread poppy cultivation."

Democrats said they were frustrated that the military's latest budget does not include a full accounting of next year's war costs.

If the current rate of war spending is a guide, the additional request for 2009 is likely to exceed $100 billion.

"Without full transparency after more than six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is impossible for the American people to make a full accounting of our financial commitment there," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But Gates says a realistic estimate is almost impossible to make, in part because he doesn't know how many troops will be in Iraq this fall. Also uncertain is whether Congress will approve the $102.5 billion still needed in this budget year, he said.

Democrats are waiting to consider the $102.5 billion until after they hear from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, in April.

"Delay is degrading our ability to operate and sustain the force at home and in theater, and is making it difficult to manage this department in a way that is fiscally sound," Gates warns.

"The Department of Defense is like the world's biggest supertanker," he adds. "It cannot turn on a dime and cannot be steered like a skiff."