If the U.S. were to face a new conventional threat, its military could not respond effectively without turning to air power, officials and analysts say.
That is the ultimate upshot of the war in Iraq: a response elsewhere would consist largely of U.S. fighters and bombers — even, perhaps, some degree of nuclear strike — because so many ground troops are tied up in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
And that leaves at least some senior U.S. leaders and analysts crossing their fingers.
“I believe that we, as a nation, are at risk of mission failure should our Army be called to deploy to an emerging threat,” Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, said last year, basing his assessment on classified Army readiness reports.
The Army is bearing the brunt of the fight, and senior leaders readily acknowledge that.
“We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other contingencies,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15.
The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2006 that Army readiness rates had declined to the lowest levels since the end of the Vietnam War, with roughly half of all Army units, active and reserve, at the lowest readiness ratings for currently available units. Casey told the Senate committee that training and readiness levels for nondeployed units have “actually stayed about the same since last summer — and it’s not good
But readiness problems are not limited to the ground forces. Air Force operational readiness rates are 17 percent below the level before Sept. 11, 2001 — only 53 percent of Air Force units, many using aging aircraft that require more frequent repairs, were considered “green,” or fully mission-capable, as of March, according to service data.
“The Air Force’s case is a lot different than the other services,” said an Air Force officer with extensive Pentagon staff experience who asked not to be identified. “This is not an air war. This is a ground war that is being fought with a lot of air power.”
Only the Navy, not heavily tasked with Iraq war duties, feels like it’s ready to take on another contingency.
“The Navy’s current readiness remains excellent,” Adm. Robert Willard, vice chief of naval operations, told the House subcommittee in March.
But even that service’s budget has been trimmed to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in fewer steaming days for nondeployed forces.
Most spec-ops specialties are chronically underfilled, according to a June CNAS report by Schultz and Michèle Flournoy, “Shaping Ground Forces for the Future.”
They also note that 85 percent of all deployed Army Special Forces troops are working in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, leaving few available for other missions.
National Guard and reserve forces also are getting a sustained workout that is causing major strains on what were once known as “weekend warriors.”
As Casey put it: “Our reserve components are performing an operational role for which they were neither originally designed nor resourced.”