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Military at Risk, Congress Warned

Times Staff Writer

Strains imposed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it far more difficult for the U.S. military to beat back any future act of aggression, launch a preemptive strike or intervene to prevent conflict in another part of the world, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a classified analysis sent to Congress on Monday.

In a sober assessment of the Pentagon’s reduced ability to deal with global threats, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said that the American military was at greater risk this year than last of being unable to properly execute the missions it needed to prepare for around the globe. The assessment states that the military is at “significant risk” of being unable to prevail against enemies abroad in the manner that Pentagon war plans mandate.

Myers’ conclusions were couched in highly diplomatic language. But they represented the most candid acknowledgment thus far by a senior Pentagon official that the U.S. involvement in Iraq -- which has cost far more in lives and money and taken much longer than predicted -- has led to a reassessment of what the U.S. military can and cannot do abroad.

And it comes against a background of rising tensions with Iran and North Korea over the advances both countries have made in developing nuclear weapons, as well as continuing evidence that insurgents remain capable of inflicting bloody losses on coalition troops and Iraqi security forces.

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Pentagon officials stressed that the bottom line of the risk assessment, which the military sends to Congress each year, is that the United States still would be able to win any war the president asked the Pentagon to fight -- although it might take longer and require more troops and other resources than the Pentagon’s various contingency plans have called for.

“The assessment is that we would succeed, but there would be higher casualties and more collateral damage,” said one senior defense official. “We would have to win uglier.”

Military and civilian officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they were discussing details about a classified document.

Though it recognizes the strains on manpower, equipment and other capabilities that have been visible during the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, Myers’ report to Congress does not conclude that the military is at a greater risk of being unable to carry out its missions to protect U.S. soil.

That risk, defense officials said, is assessed as “moderate.” America’s enemies should not take solace in the analysis or think that the U.S. is somehow more vulnerable than it was last year, they insisted.

Yet Myers’ report, the Military Risk Assessment and Threat Mitigation Plan, is a concession to the realities of the last three years.

Just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pentagon issued a sweeping defense strategy detailing a vision for winning swift wars against global terrorist networks and outlaw regimes. One year later, the White House unveiled a National Security Strategy that discussed using the U.S. military to launch preemptive wars and snuff out threats before they materialized -- a strategy that would later be known as the Bush Doctrine.

Now, with nearly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq two years after the fall of Baghdad, many Pentagon officials acknowledge that the bloody insurgency has tempered that vision.

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“The activities we have taken on are at least as great as what we anticipated that we would be able to” handle, said a second senior defense official. Any additional tasks, the official said, would be affected by the current U.S. deployments abroad.

Another reason for the new assessment, officials said, is that the Pentagon has rewritten every major war plan over the last few years -- using advances in technology to plan faster wars with fewer U.S. troops.

These standards are more difficult to meet, and Myers is said to believe the military is at greater risk of being unable to reach specific goals for planning and executing missions.

“The performance targets that we’ve set for operational force, we’ve raised those,” the second senior defense official said.

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One chart included in the report projected that though the risk is higher this year, it will be “trending lower” over the next two years if the Pentagon reduces the number of troops stationed in Iraq.

Experts said the conclusions in Myers’ report, although hardly unexpected, were significant because the nation’s highest military officer was giving a candid assessment of the strains the U.S. military was experiencing.

“It’s certainly a blinding flash of the obvious,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “But it’s always nice when someone says the obvious.”

Donnelly said that though it was significant that Myers believed the U.S. military would ultimately be able to win any war it was asked to fight, the Pentagon’s reduced ability to respond to crises in a timely fashion could jeopardize its ability to protect U.S. interests abroad.

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One example he cited was the Taiwan Strait, where the proximity of Taiwan to adversary China would allow hostilities to spiral out of control quickly, making a rapid response by the Pentagon crucial.

“Time can mean the difference between winning and losing,” Donnelly said.

Pentagon officials said several initiatives were underway to mitigate the risks outlined in Myers’ report, such as increasing the number of special operations troops, placing more reliance on long-range precision weaponry and increasing the Army’s size by 10 combat brigades by converting soldiers in staff positions into front-line troops.


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