Strained by repeated war tours, persistent terrorist threats and instability around the globe, there is a significant risk the U.S. military may not be able to respond quickly and fully to new crises, a classified Pentagon assessment has concluded.
This is the third year that the risk level has been set at "significant" — despite improved security conditions in Iraq and plans to cut U.S. troop levels there. Senior military officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because it is a classified document.
The risk assessment, drawn up by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paints a broad picture of the security threats and hot spots around the world and the U.S. military's ability to deal with them. Mullen has delivered it to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The assessment is prepared every year and routinely delivered to Congress with the budget,
Because the threat is rated as significant, Gates will send an accompanying report to Congress outlining what the military is doing to address the risks. That report has not yet been finished.
This year's assessment finds many of the same global security issues as previous years — ranging from terrorist organizations and unstable governments to the potential for high-tech cyber attacks. It also reflects the Pentagon's struggle to maintain a military that can respond to threats from other countries while honing newer counterinsurgency techniques to battle more unconventional dangers, such as suicide bombers and lethal roadside bombs.
Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a military policy research group in Arlington, Va., said the assessment would take into account the strains on the force, the wear and tear on aircraft and other military equipment, and a whole host of global flashpoints.
"This is a chairman who looks around the world and sees — right now, today — immediate, near-term problems like North Korea, the larger questions of Pakistan and its future, Iran and what is going on there, Russia and Georgia, Venezuela, which has a close relationship with Russia and is buying arms all over the place, and Cuba," Goure said.
While officials are preparing to reduce troop levels in Iraq, they are increasing their forces in Afghanistan — giving troops little break from their battlefield tours. The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed efforts to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps, but that growth is only now starting to have an impact.
There are 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 38,000 in Afghanistan — 19,000 in the NATO-led force and 19,000 fighting insurgents and training Afghan forces.
One senior military official said that while there have been security gains in Iraq, military units leaving there have been sapped by repeated war tours that have also battered their equipment and vehicles. It will take time to restore the force and repair or replace the equipment. In other cases, equipment has been left in Iraq for use by the steadily growing Iraqi security forces.
Two years ago, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace raised the risk level from moderate to significant, pointing to an overall decline in military readiness that he said would take several years to correct. A year later, Mullen maintained that risk level, saying that strains on the military, persistent terrorist activity and other threats had prevented the Pentagon from improving its ability to respond to any new crises.
Last year, Gates listed increased intelligence gathering as a key need to address military shortfalls. Since then, the Pentagon has steadily increased its inventory of unmanned aircraft, boosting the number of 24-hour unmanned air patrols over the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefront from 24 to 33.