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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
High cost of US military 'over-stretch'
Jonathan Marcus
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

The decision to maintain current US troop levels in Iraq and the possibility of a much smaller scale US deployment to Liberia has once again raised the question of military over-stretch.

US troop levels in Iraq stand at about 150,000.

President George W Bush addresses troops in Qatar
Will the US army stand behind future Bush decisions?
More foreign troops are on their way, but in the short to medium-term this is unlikely to reduce the demand for US combat power.

As well as the deployment in Iraq, some 30,000 US troops are based in South Korea, there is a sizeable deployment in Afghanistan and significant peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.

So do the US armed forces have sufficient manpower to conduct so many operations at once?

Some analysts believe that alarm bells should be sounding in the Pentagon.

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC has calculated that some 250,000 US troops are currently deployed away from home; a force that must be generated from an army of just over one million.

But there are only 480,000 active army personnel - the rest come from the reserves - and of that active duty force only some 320,000 are easily deployable at any one moment.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, O'Hanlon argued that while it could clearly win wars, the US military risked being broken by the burdens of peacekeeping and post-war security duties.

All this of course comes during the watch of a president who promised on the campaign trail to reduce the burden and over-use of the military.

Quite the opposite has happened, in part because of some fundamental misreadings of the likely post-war situation in Iraq and in part because the US - as the world's only superpower - is finding out that the burdens of empire cannot easily be shrugged off or passed over to others.


Over-stretch matters because it encourages people to leave the armed services.

The modern professional military is susceptible to many of the pressures affecting all other areas of society.

US soldiers in Iraq
The answer to overstretch lies in getting better value from existing units
There may be a strong sense of dedication and patriotism. But people still want time with their families and they want predictability about where they will be and when tours of duty will end.

The disappointment of members of the US 3rd Infantry Division on hearing that their stay in Iraq was to be prolonged was palpable.

Many of these problems are equally relevant to reserve forces who can only accept so much disruption to their normal lives.

The answer does not lie in expanding the US military but in getting better value or more deployability from the units it already has.

Part of the transformation effort initiated by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will help here; converting heavy-armoured formations to much lighter more deployable (and hence more useful) units.

Just a few weeks ago in Louisiana, I watched the first of the new interim combat brigades going through its final exercise before being approved for active duty.

This - the first of six such formations - is equipped with lighter wheeled armoured vehicles suitable for a range of military missions rather than heavy Abrams tanks.

Re-equipping and re-organisation is part of the answer. But other steps will also be needed.

O'Hanlon argues that the US Marine Corps should take a more active part in peacekeeping operations alongside the army.

But it is equally clear that much more attention needs to be given to basic welfare issues, accommodation and so on.

Retaining trained personnel is essential if the current strains on the US military are not to develop into a full-scale crisis.

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16 Jan 02  |  Politics

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