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Wider mission stretches military

With Pentagon chasing Al Qaeda in more countries, Congress and Rumsfeld spar over size of armed forces.

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2002


Nearly two years ago, in a speech to Midwestern veterans, candidate George Bush blamed "back-to-back" deployments of US forces by the Clinton administration in the 1990s for pushing a neglected American military into sharp decline.

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Now, the Bush team is itself facing complaints of military over-extension as it dispatches thousands of US troops to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Georgia, and Pakistan. The Pentagon has pledged to pursue terrorists in a dozen more countries around the globe if necessary.

The rapid-fire deployments since Sept. 11 are spurring a debate in Washington over whether US forces are being stretched too thin – and what to do about it. Military service chiefs, backed by some in Congress, are calling for more manpower. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is resisting expensive new recruitments, preferring instead to shift existing US troops out of "non-military" peacekeeping operations and civilian duties.

With new wartime demands ranging from Afghanistan to airport security, US military and defense officials agree that the faster operational tempo is straining personnel. More than 80,000 National Guard and reserve troops have been called up to join the 1.37 million-strong active duty force, a mobilization the Pentagon admits will be difficult to sustain long-term. Yet, a plan to demobilize 14,000 of those guardsmen and reservists by June 30 would add pressure to remaining forces.

Moreover, heavy demands on key military personnel such as Special Operations Forces, pilots, linguists, and military police, have led the Army, Navy, and Air Force to impose "stop-loss" orders barring as many as 25,000 active-duty personnel from retiring or leaving on schedule.

As a result, the military services are clamoring to boost their manpower, or "end strength" in Pentagon-speak, by more than 50,000 people. "We're very concerned about operational tempo and the impact it has on families and for the reserve component," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said recently in a televised interview.

One military official put it more bluntly: "We live and die by end strength," he said.

Congress is showing signs of obliging. Last week, a House Armed Services Committee panel approved the biggest single-year increase in military personnel since 1986, which would put an additional 12,500 people on active duty under the 2003 defense budget. That increase surpassed the Bush administration request by more than 10,000 people.

"Wartime operations have ... exacerbated the same debilitating stresses of high operations and personnel tempos and resource shortages that existed before the start of the global war on terrorism," said Rep. John McHugh (R) of New York, who chairs the House military personnel subcommittee.