The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the U.S. military to a point where it is at higher risk of less swiftly and easily defeating potential foes, though officials maintained that U.S. forces could handle any military threat that presents itself.
An annual risk assessment by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that commanders are having difficulty meeting the higher standards imposed on them by conflicts around the world, including the military effort against terrorism. Presented to members of Congress yesterday, the assessment found that the risk has increased but is trending lower, according to defense and military officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
Underscoring the stress facing the armed services, the Army reported separately yesterday that its recruiting efforts are continuing to slip, as recruiters nationwide obtained less than 60 percent of the April goal of 6,600 new recruits into the active-duty force. It was the third straight month in which the Army missed its recruiting goal, and it represents a significant downward trend.
According to the Army, the recruiting effort is 16 percent behind where it should be at this point in the fiscal year, and current figures project a nearly 10 percent shortfall by the end of the fiscal year in September. Army recruiting officials believe enhanced recruiting efforts and incentives should increase their enlistments over the summer, but they would have to consistently beat monthly goals over the next five months to meet annual goals. While the Army should have had 42,585 new recruits for the year as of the end of April, it had 35,833. It hopes to have 80,000 new enlistments this fiscal year.
"We are still cautiously optimistic," said Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman.
Myers's risk assessment is a rare open acknowledgment that the stresses on the force and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have an impact on other military operations. Although the assessment does not indicate a greater threat to the nation, or a greater threat to the military, it does indicate that additional conflicts could take longer, or eat up more resources, than expected.
Military and defense officials spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity yesterday because the risk assessment is a classified document, but they wanted to emphasize that the heightened risk does not indicate vulnerability on the part of U.S. forces and that it should not be read by other nations as an opportunity to attack. The officials said the United States would win any projected conflict across the globe, but the path to victory could be more complicated.
"There is no doubt of what the outcome is going to be," a top defense official said. "Risk to accomplish the task isn't even part of the discussion. The way we accomplish the task is."
A senior military official said, for example, that it is obvious that if another conflict arises while the United States does battle in Iraq and Afghanistan and fights the global war on terrorism, it would not be as easily accomplished as if the other three conflicts did not exist.
"It wouldn't be as pretty," the official said.
Defense officials are also working to mitigate the risks by following through with plans to transform the military, making it more agile and lethal, and by looking at how U.S. troops are positioned around the globe. By raising operational standards, officials say commanders can save lives by acting faster and by using fewer resources.
The military's need for manpower on the ground, however, continues to highlight demands on the Army and the Marines, the two services charged with conducting the ongoing wars. Along with the Army missing recruiting targets, the Marines missed contracting targets in February and March, though by relatively small amounts. The Army Reserve has also missed its recruiting targets each of the past four months, in some cases dramatically.
The shortage of recruits has the Army's boot camps running at lower-than-usual capacity. The Army's basic training center at Fort Benning, Ga., is training seven companies currently, half of its maximum capacity of 14 companies, according to Col. Bill Gallagher, commander of the Basic Combat Training Brigade. Moreover, each company of fresh recruits is smaller than usual, with only 190 troops compared with a maximum possible of 220, he said.
The only way the Army can meet its annual recruiting goal is with a large surge of enlistments this spring and summer, leading Fort Benning officials to prepare for "a huge influx, in case it happens," Gallagher said. Last year, however, there was "no summer surge," he said.
As of the end of March, 7,800 infantry soldiers had been trained at Fort Benning, compared with a target of 25, 541 for fiscal 2005.