War strains U.S. military in tackling new crises

/ Source: The Associated Press

A classified Pentagon assessment concludes that long battlefield tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with persistent terrorist activity and other threats, have prevented the U.S. military from improving its ability to respond to any new crisis, The Associated Press has learned.

Despite security gains in Iraq, the military was not able to reduce the response risk level, which was raised from moderate to significant last year, according to the report.

The Pentagon will say that efforts to increase the size of the military, replace equipment and bolster partnerships overseas will help lower the risk over time, defense officials said Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified report.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has completed the risk assessment, and it is expected to be delivered to Congress in mid-February. Because he has concluded the risk is significant, his report also will include a letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlining the steps the Pentagon is taking to reduce it.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace increased the risk level from moderate to significant last year.

Mullen: 15-month tours too long
In Congress this week, Mullen provided a glimpse into his thinking on the review. On Friday, Pentagon officials confirmed that the assessment is finished and acknowledged some of the factors Gates will cite in his letter.

"The risk has basically stayed consistent, stayed steady," Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee. "It is significant."

He said the 15-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are too long and must be reduced to 12 months, with longer rest periods at home. "We continue to build risk with respect to that," he said.

Other key national security challenges include threats from countries that possess weapons of mass destruction, as well as the need to replace equipment worn out and destroyed during more than six years of war.

On a positive note, Mullen pointed to security gains in Iraq, brought on in part by the increase in U.S. forces ordered there by President Bush last year. There, "the threat has receded and al-Qaida ... is on the run," he said. "We've reduced risk there. We've got more stability there as an example."

The annual review grades the military's ability to meet the demands of the nation's military strategy — which would include fighting the wars as well as being able to respond to any potential outbreaks in places such as North Korea, Iran, Lebanon or China.

The latest review by Mullen covers the military's status during 2007, but the readiness level has seesawed back and forth during the Iraq war. For example, the risk for 2004 was assessed as significant, but it improved to moderate in 2005 and 2006.

Last year, when Pace increased the risk level, a report from Gates accompanying the assessment warned that while the military is working to improve its warfighting capabilities, it "may take several years to reduce risk to acceptable levels."