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Even before 9/11 and America’s global war on terrorism, U.S. military leaders argued that force levels needed to rise, or worldwide commitments needed to fall, to avoid wearing out troops and creating personnel shortfalls.

Two years, two wars and two prolonged U.S. occupation forces later, the strain on forces is broader and deeper than at any time since an all-volunteer force began 30 years ago.

The Bush administration has kicked the pace of operations into overdrive with the war in Iraq, on top of Afghanistan, homeland security, peacekeeping in Liberia and rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Still, the administration balks at the cost of expanding active forces beyond 1.37 million. Before he would endorse that, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he wants the services to ease deployment stress through bureaucratic reforms, by assigning and rotating troops more efficiently.

Indeed, said Rumsfeld at an Aug. 5 press conference, “we can use the stress on the force to get our act together and to do a better job managing the taxpayers’ money … managing our force in a way that’s more respectful of the Guard and Reserve and their employers and their families.”

As the issue simmers inside the Pentagon, a rising chorus outside — of auditors, defense analysts and advocates for military families — suggest the administration already is late in pressing Congress for more people, given the dangerous and daunting contingencies U.S. troops now face.

A new General Accounting Office report (03-670) looks at the strain on U.S. forces just from new domestic missions since 9/11, and criticizes Defense officials for delaying force structure changes to address homeland security needs until the next Quadrennial Defense Review in 2005.

The administration did establish a U.S. Northern Command to coordinate domestic operations, and an office of assistant defense secretary for homeland defense to supervise that responsibility.

But because forces aren’t tailored to perform missions such as domestic combat air patrols and installation security, training is stunted and readiness is eroding, GAO said.

Meanwhile, the pace of operations for units involved in homeland defense is high enough that thousands of military personnel are exceeding personnel tempo ceilings set by Congress to protect troop morale. As a result, GAO warned, they face “future personnel retention problems.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, studied the troop rotation plan for Iraq, which would maintain current force levels using replacement brigades that will serve there for up to a year. Despite that hardship, reminiscent of combat tours in Vietnam, O’Hanlon said the Army’s rotation base could be exhausted by late 2004.

“That means we will have to take the unthinkable step of sending back to Iraq people who returned from there a year before,” said O’Hanlon. “Many American soldiers, as dedicated as they are, will choose not to re-enlist rather than accept such an unpalatable — and frankly, unfair — demand upon them and their families.”

In announcing the Iraq force rotation plan, Gen. John Keane, deputy chief of staff, discussed an Army stretched thin. He said 24 of the 33 active brigades — or 73 percent — deployed overseas in fiscal 2003, along with 15 of 45 Army National Guard enhanced battalions.

In July alone, 369,000 U.S. soldiers were overseas, including 61,000 reservists and 74,000 Guard members. The largest deployments left 133,000 soldiers in Iraq, 34,000 in Kuwait, 31,000 in South Korea, 9,600 in Afghanistan and 5,100 in the Balkans.

Another 29,000 were deployed stateside, away from family, on homeland security missions.

Meredith Leyva, author of Married to the Military: A Survival Guide, and wife of a Navy physician, wrote in a recent commentary that “resentment among servicemembers and their families, at the now-unbearable pace of deployments, can hardly be contained by their commanding officers, even though such comments can end their careers.”

— Comments are welcomed. Write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit Philpott’s Web site at: www.militaryupdate.com.

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