Army at the Breaking Point?

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Even as the Pentagon claims that the military is making great strides against the insurgency in Iraq, there are growing signs that U.S. forces may be near the breaking point. Some 600 top officials of industry, academia and the military are huddling in the capital this week to figure out how to defeat the lethal "improvised explosive devices"—roadside bombs—that have become a grave threat deployed by the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told some of the military-industrial complex's brainiest thinkers on Monday that "we owe it to the troops" to harness new technologies to squelch the IED threat. Such remote-controlled weapons kill and wound more U.S. troops than any other inside Iraq, England said. Highlighting just how seriously the Pentagon takes the threat, last week England signed a memo elevating what had been a mere Pentagon task force into the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. Army Secretary Francis Harvey revealed last week that only one in 20 U.S. troops killed in Iraq die from gunshot wounds. Nearly all of the rest—he declined to be more specific—perish from explosions, primarily roadside bombs.

At the same time, a new report—paid for by the Pentagon—echoes the recent private grumblings of some top military brass that the rapid deployment of troops to Iraq is in danger of crippling the fighting force that the nation has steadily rebuilt since the shaky post-Vietnam Army of a generation ago. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and West Point graduate who wrote the 136-page report assessing the military's Iraq strategy, warns that the Army cannot maintain its current pace of operations in Iraq without leaving permanent damage. Plans to trim U.S. troops there this year—now at 138,000, with hopes of reducing that to 100,000 by year's end—is a tacit acknowledgment that the Army is stretched too thin, he maintains in a section he entitles "The Thin Green Line." The service's failure to achieve its recruiting goal in 2005—the first time it has missed it since 1999—and hefty bonuses for soldiers to reenlist are further evidence of the Army's erosion, he writes.

The top U.S. officer in Iraq said Thursday that his forces, while strained, are not broken. "The forces are stretched," Army General George Casey said. "I don't think there's any question of that. But the Army has been for the last several years going through a modernization strategy that will produce more units and more ready units." Still, his boss, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, flat-out declared Wednesday that Krepinevich's study "is just not consistent with the facts." But as the defense secretary spoke to reporters at the Pentagon, Democrats led by former defense secretary William Perry released a report making similar claims as Krepinevich's. Today's Army, the second report concludes, is under enormous strain with potentially "highly-corrosive and potentially long-term effects on the force."

And while a near-doubling of roadside bombs in Iraq—from 5,607 in 2004 to 10,953 last year—might be seen as a sign that the insurgents are on the rise, the U.S. military doesn't view it that way. "The number of IEDs have gone up," Harvey, the Army secretary, said last week, "but the effectiveness of those explosions has been cut by 66 percent. And I'm not going to get into any more detail than that."

This tendency to accentuate the positive is likely to permeate the U.S. military's soon-to-be-released 2007 budget proposal and the accompanying Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR, released every four years, guides annual spending decisions by venturing how the U.S. military is likely to be waging war in years to come. But, defense officials say, it continues to pump billions of dollars into weapons of dubious utility in the war on terror—like the Army's $161 billion Future Combat Systems. The Army says this welter of weapons—tanks and helicopters, both manned and unmanned, all bound together with computer data links—will let soldiers "move, shoot and communicate better than ever before." But at a time when the military is still belatedly buying sufficient armor for its Humvees and troops on the ground in Iraq, critics suggest such grandiose schemes only fuel suspicion that the Pentagon itself is a victim of the fog of war.