As President Bush presses his case for military action against Iraq, critics argue that a campaign to topple Saddam Hussein would constitute a dangerous distraction from the ongoing war on terrorism.
Yet from a purely military perspective, would invading Iraq stretch US forces thin? Already, as they prepare for such action, senior military officials acknowledge that certain essential assets are "high demand, low density" in other words, in short supply.
That doesn't mean an invasion couldn't go forward. Senior military officials insist that US forces are sized and arrayed to win two major wars at a time while also covering smaller contingencies.
But in practice, expanding military commitments are straining certain resources. Areas that are stretched thin include US Special Operations Forces, military linguists and police, Air Force cargo and refueling planes, unmanned surveillance drones, and precision-guided bombs, military officials say.
"We have a lot of forces really busy," says Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers. "You can go to any community in armed forces, you can pick out pieces of it that area working very hard right now just because of the nature of the requirements."
Special Operations units are one of the key US forces "in limited supply," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "We need to see that we have the right numbers in the right places," given the extensive role of the elite units in counterterrorism operations around the globe. To increase the numbers, marines will soon be drawn into the Special Operations Command for the first time. Meanwhile, where possible, conventional military units will take over activities carried out by Special Operations troops, such as searching caves in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials say.
"Say you're in Afghanistan today and Yemen today and Iraq tomorrow," says one Army official. "Pretty soon, you will be overextended, and you can't grow [Special Operations Forces] overnight."
The 9,000 US Army Special Forces soldiers, known as Green Berets, are in especially high demand. Trained linguists with cultural skills for working overseas, they have been at the forefront of the Pentagon's antiterror strategy.
Only the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., is specialized in the Middle East and Central Asia. Of the group's 1,200 to 1,300 people, fewer than 650 serve on the Green Beret A teams. The rest are support troops or commanders, says Maj. Gary Kolb of US Army Special Operations Command. At the peak of the Afghanistan campaign, about 324 men on Green Beret A teams were deployed in the country, Major Kolb says.
Several efforts are under way to bolster Army Special Forces. A "stop loss" order now bars Green Berets from leaving the service. Meanwhile, an additional 400 people recruited from outside the Army to become Green Berets are undergoing training.
Also in high demand are a key intelligence asset: the unmanned surveillance drones such as the Predator and Global Hawk, which are being used widely in the hunt for terrorists and would be needed to provide real-time battlefield images in Iraq. The Air Force currently has only three Global Hawks, after losing two during the Afghanistan campaign. It has ordered 56 more. It is also buying more of the smaller Predator drones which number about 40 after the loss of 23 in recent years.
In addition, the Air Force recently ordered 60 more C-17 cargo planes, after the Afghanistan campaign produced the third largest airlift in US history (in tonnage terms). This had led the Pentagon to spend $1.5 billion on commercial airlift services, double the amount of the previous year.
Given the high demands on its aged fleet of tanker planes that carry out midair refueling of bombers and other aircraft, the Air Force is also negotiating with Boeing Co. to lease 100 767s configured as tankers.
Meanwhile, a Missouri factory owned by Boeing is ramping up production of tail kits for precision-guided bombs known as JDAMs, rushing to replenish stocks depleted by Afghanistan war. Production of the kits is more than doubling from 1,200 in April to an expected 2,000 next month and 2,800 by next summer, Pentagon officials say.
Yet despite pressure on these and other military resources, none of these obstacles would prevent the United States from overthrowing President Hussein while fulfilling its role in the broader war on terrorism, say US military and defense analysts.
Much depends on the specific war plan adopted for Iraq, as well as the degree of access that US forces have to forward bases in the Persian Gulf region. Still, even under a scenario that calls for a full-scale air, land, and sea attack involving as many as 200,000 US troops, the US military would have adequate strength in reserve, officials and experts say.
"Overall, the US military should not be strained to the breaking point to continue to conduct current operations and also mount a war against Iraq," says Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. "It's more about particulars here and there than a big picture of a military force that cannot undertake this mission."
US forces are designed to be capable of "swiftly defeating attacks" in two major theaters of operation at one time, according to the strategy laid out last fall in the Quadrennial Defense Review. In one theater, those capabilities are to include occupying territory and setting "the conditions for regime change."
Moreover, some analysts predict that the Bush administration is unlikely to mount a full-scale attack on Iraq, but is more likely to use one of two other options that would involve far fewer troops: an air-dominated strategy modeled after Afghanistan, or an "inside out" strategy involving a concentrated attack on Baghdad with about 50,000 troops.
"In the opening stages of the war [in Iraq], there would not be tremendous stress," says Charles Peña at the Cato Institute here, who believes an Afghan-type strategy is likely. "I think where we would be stressed would be if the administration decided to conduct other operations against the other 'axis of evil' countries."