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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 January, 2004, 01:41 GMT
Analysis: Is the US Army big enough?

By Nick Childs
BBC Pentagon correspondent

In the Pentagon, nobody now disputes that the US Army is really stretched at the moment.

The latest evidence of this are the new plans to tell thousands of troops that they must put retirement plans on hold, and big new financial inducements the US Army is offering troops to re-enlist.
A US soldier in South Korea
US troops are stationed around the world

All this is fuelling the debate in Washington over whether the US Army is big enough to fulfil all the commitments it now faces around the world.

Many in Congress, and some in the military's top brass, clearly believe the Army is short of perhaps two active divisions, maybe 20,000 troops or more.

The civilian leadership at the Pentagon says it doesn't completely rule out such an option if top commanders recommend it.

But, for the moment, the message from the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is that much more can be done by short-term adjustments, cutting inefficiencies, and moving troops around to different tasks.

Retirement on hold

A lot of the debate clearly revolves around whether the Iraq operation is considered a relatively short-term "spike" in commitments or whether it is the shape of things to come.

The latest move by the Army to manage the strain it's under is an expansion of so-called "stop-loss" orders.

These have already been issued for forces heading to combat zones. But the Pentagon is now extending them to forces currently serving in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

Basically, those soldiers who were expecting to retire or otherwise leave the service in the next few months are to be told they can't, at least while their units are still deployed, or for up to 90 days after they return to their home bases.

Of the 150,000 or so troops currently in these countries, it is estimated some 7,000 will be affected.

Military commanders say this is to maintain unit cohesion and readiness. Basically, they don't want to lose their most experienced combat troops right now.

The Pentagon says none of this will affect how long overall units remain in Iraq.

But that clearly won't be the case for many individual soldiers. And there could be hardships for some, especially if they've already lined up jobs outside the Army which could be put at risk.

Can the army handle another crisis?

As for the planned payments, these are further evidence that the Army high command both feels it can't afford to lose too many experienced people and fears that that might be exactly what will happen.

US troops in Baghdad
The US is involved in conflicts around the world
So-called "re-enlistment bonuses" are fairly common. But they tend to be focused on troops with specific skills that might be in short supply, like translators, engineers, or intelligence personnel.

These new bonuses are blanket inducements for anyone now serving in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. And the Pentagon is putting aside more than $60 million to fund them.

Whether these inducements will be enough is another question.

As well as its operational commitments, the Army - like the other services - is being asked to transform itself, basically to reform into a leaner, more flexible force to deal with new security threats.

So units are in Iraq, for example, are being asked simultaneously to fight insurgents and study how they might reorganize themselves for future operations. It's a lot to ask.

And with more than half the active army now committed to current operations, and most of the rest recovering and retraining after recent deployments, critics argue that that leaves nothing left should another major military crisis erupt - something the Pentagon is supposed to be able to handle.

Pentagon leaders insist they still can.

But that may in part be because, if another crisis should develop, say with North Korea, they think they could rely more on the firepower of the air force, navy, and marines - which are not so stretched at the moment - to deal with the situation.

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