WASHINGTON -- Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are draining the U.S. strategic military reserve, officers say, leaving combat brigades and battalions unable to respond quickly to international crises and corroding the military power that in the past has strengthened America's diplomacy abroad.
With U.S. forces locked into a grinding rotation through the war zones and equipment wearing out fast, the Army and Marine Corps are struggling to keep units that are between combat tours trained and equipped - and mostly failing, senior officers acknowledge.
In order to equip the tens of thousands of troops ordered by President Bush to "surge" to Iraq this spring, units that make up the strategic reserve are having to give up weapons, armored Humvees, night vision goggles, roadside bomb jammers and other critical gear, military officers said.
The pace of deployments, which leaves Army units barely a year between 12-month combat tours and Marines less than seven months, also means there is scant time to train. Practicing for large-scale mechanized warfare has become a thing of the past, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, has said.
"The forces that are not deployed to combat ... have substantial equipping holes. They are not trained to the level they should be at, and so, therefore, they are unready for high-intensity combat," Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, responsible for equipping the Army, recently told reporters.
Congressional Democrats are seizing on the readiness problem as an argument in their effort to constrain the new deployment to Iraq.
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a retired Marine and leading Democratic voice on military affairs, wants to impose troop training and equipping standards that would have the effect of slowing the flow of U.S. troops to Iraq.
Such legislation would build on a growing concern in Congress about the strategic repercussions of the Iraq war.
"Our military is over-committed in Iraq, and is ill-equipped and ill-positioned to respond to many of the emerging crises elsewhere in the world," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a House speech last week. "This is an unacceptable level of strategic risk. ... Unfortunately, it is the magnificent men and women of our military who will pay the price for that failure."
Freshman House Democrat Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a retired three-star Navy admiral who commanded a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf and worked as a strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the "tragedy" of the Iraq war is "the real strategic impact on our Army that for so many years has prided itself on its ability to respond rapidly to any contingency."
Political issue or not, the erosion of American combat power is so severe that some senior officers are refusing to talk openly about it. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, requested at a congressional hearing last week that readiness questions be deferred until the panel could meet in a nonpublic session.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, admonished a reporter asking about declining combat readiness that "there are other audiences" listening that might draw the wrong conclusions.
"Our potential enemies around the world should not miscalculate," he told a Pentagon briefing. "If there was another threat, we would freeze the units that are in Iraq and Afghanistan in place and mobilize our reserve and bring online the enormous capacity of the United States."
At present, 15 of the Army's 41 brigade combat teams are in Iraq, along with two of the Marine Corps' six regimental combat teams. About 40 percent of the most modern U.S. ground combat equipment is in the combat zone, leaving troops back in the states short of tanks, armored Humvees, M4 carbines, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, .50-caliber machine guns and radios, military officers said.
The "surge" of five brigades and supporting units will leave 21 Army brigades and four Marine regiments, each with between 2,500 and 5,000 troops, theoretically available for emergencies, Pentagon officials said.
In a crisis, U.S. military strategy calls for these troops to be airlifted near a combat zone and to take up pre-positioned stockpiles of armor, weapons, ammunition and rations to sustain them in the first weeks of combat.
But those stocks have been depleted to equip troops in Iraq. That means that, in a crisis, troops could be deployed only to find there weren't enough tanks and machine guns and rations to sustain them in combat.
The Army, for example, normally keeps two ships at sea, each with a complete set of gear for a 3,500-man heavy-armored brigade. Last year it unloaded one of those ships and used the gear in Iraq, leaving the Army's emergency stocks short of critical equipment, according to the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress.
"That pre-positioned equipment is essential," Schoomaker told a congressional panel recently. But he said the details were classified.
Marine Corps pre-positioned stockpiles are in slightly better shape. According to Marine Lt. Gen. Emerson N. Gardner, deputy commandant for programs and resources, two of the three squadrons of pre-positioned ships are carrying 98 percent of their equipment. But the third group of ships has only 48 percent of the emergency gear it should have and won't be completely refilled until 2008.
At home, shortages of gear mean that brigades being held in reserve cannot fully train, said military officers who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss readiness. Infantry squads lacking night vision goggles and thermal sights for their weapons, for instance, can't train for night operations - a combat capability that gives American troops a crucial advantage over most other forces. Similar problems affect aviation units short of helicopters and armor units short of the latest tanks and other vehicles.
"We have units sharing equipment," Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all U.S. Marine forces in the Middle East, said in an interview. Mattis said that even without additional training for high-intensity warfare, the deepening experience Marines are gaining in combat in Iraq would be applicable in any kind of fight.
"I'm not too concerned with it so far," said Mattis, who commanded the 1st Marine Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he added: "It is not a safe way to go."
Several Army officers said that without armored Humvees, new drivers, typically the newest soldiers in a unit, learn to drive on lightweight, unarmored Humvees and don't master the specialized skills needed with the heavy armored versions they will operate in Iraq. Armored Humvees have experienced a high rate of fatal rollovers in Iraq.
"In training, we treat a Humvee as if it were armored," said an Army lieutenant colonel, who asked not to be named. "You do the best you can with what you've got." But, he said, new drivers "miss the feel of the heavy vehicles and the longer braking patterns."
Much of the equipment now in such short supply is stacked up at military depots in a repair process that is taking far longer than planners had anticipated.
A Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter damaged in January 2003, as U.S. forces gathered for the invasion of Iraq, won't be returned to service until 2009, the Marines said. It takes, on average, 260 days just to move a piece of heavy equipment like a tank from Iraq back to the U.S.
In what is intended as a strategic cushion against such problems, most combat contingency plans call for the Air Force to hold the enemy in place with air strikes until U.S. ground forces can arrive. But Air Force officers say their service's combat readiness is beginning to suffer from the demands of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, throwing that assumption in doubt.
Of 316 Air Force combat units, those reporting as fully ready fell from 68 percent in 2004 to 56 percent this year, said a senior Air Force officer, who called it "an insidious decline in readiness."
"We are the force that buys time for the Army and Marine Corps to get there," said the senior officer, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the readiness issue. "As our force becomes increasingly old and less relevant, that window of opportunity gets shorter and shorter, and the deployment of land forces into that fight becomes increasingly problematical."
These difficulties will become dangerously evident if an unforeseen crisis demands the threatened or actual use of U.S. combat troops, strategists said. Military officers now expect any future conflicts to be sudden and unpredictable - and to require a significant commitment of ground forces over a lengthy period.
"These people who say we are never going to do this again, I don't know where they are coming from," Schoomaker told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, referring to the war in Iraq. "This is a peek into the future."
Among other concerns, analysts worry that terrorists or insurgents backed by Iran might try to seize oil facilities in the Persian Gulf, or that the Pakistani government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf could be destabilized or overthrown, with al-Qaida and Taliban forces moving in and Pakistan's nuclear weapons on the loose.
In a crisis, said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon strategic planner, the United States will rely heavily on its available military clout, even if that is used only to back up diplomacy.
"Kennedy said it best, that we should never negotiate from fear, but never fear to negotiate," said Krepinevich, a West Point graduate who directs the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.