If there's to be war with Iraq, US officials would like to start soon and finish quickly.
But what if politics and diplomacy - wrangling over UN resolutions, delayed inspection reports, massive war protests - continue to intervene?
What if the 150,000 American troops and five aircraft carrier battle groups now crowded menacingly around Iraq are still sitting there next summer, or next year?
Readiness and morale could start to flag, say experienced combat unit officers and other military experts. Equipment could begin to deteriorate.
Normal rotations to new assignments, service schools, and retirement - all on hold - could falter throughout the services. Homeland security could be impacted as national guard and reserve units - made up largely of first-responders back home - see their deployments increasing and extended. Other military commands around the world will also be impacted.
"The military was designed to be a rotating expeditionary force, not the modern-day equivalent of the Roman legion," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense-consulting firm in Arlington, Va. "When rotations stop to accommodate static concentrations, the whole system begins to back up and bog down. The consequences can take years to fully resolve."
Military officials worry that this could be the case, even if any war with Iraq is over quickly, since a high-level US military role will continue there long after the fighting has stopped.
The concern comes at a time when US military forces - operating at an overall force level that is significantly lower than it was during the first Gulf War - face unusual circumstances in other parts of the world. Some 37,000 American soldiers in South Korea face an increasingly belligerent North Korea threatening to build nuclear weapons. It was announced last week that 3,000 US troops are being deployed to the Philippines to hunt down Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists. Meanwhile, thousands of US combat and support troops are likely to remain in Afghanistan for an extended period.
Because the fighting in Afghanistan and now the buildup and deployment in the Persian Gulf is estimated to be costing an extra billion dollars a month, Pentagon budgeting is likely to be impacted in ways that adversely affect the military services for years to come.
"No matter how generous Congress turns out to be, there will be some serious hits inside the personnel and maintenance accounts," says Larry Seaquist, retired US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist. "The service chiefs back in Washington will start to panic quietly at some point. They are going to be seeing years of catching up to get training/deployment cycles back to normal, maintenance caught up, etc. - all very expensive, all unlikely to be fully funded."
Soldiers at the ready
As for the troops on the ground and sailors and marines aboard ship, experts say they could stay sharp for months.
"If you remember back in Desert Shield, heck, in the 130-degree temperature of August we put in the 82nd Airborne, seven brigades, three carrier battle groups, 14 fighter squadrons, and they stayed there for six months until the war started," says Rear Adm. Stephen Baker (USN, ret.), who was chief of staff for a carrier battle group during Desert Storm.
"Just how long can the massive military buildup stay in place?" asks Admiral Baker, now a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The answer really is for as long as it takes."
But even if the war is over in a month, Baker predicts "major domino effects throughout all the services, especially those units that deploy."
Back during the Gulf War of 1991, US-led allied forces got out in a hurry and left Saddam Hussein in power. This time, Baker says, many thousands of US troops will have to stay in Iraq for at least a year and a half, searching for weapons of mass destruction, protecting the humanitarian and civilian-led nation-building effort, and keeping order among conflicting religious and ethnic groups once Hussein is killed, captured, or run into exile.
Sailors and airmen already have seen their deployments extended. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to come home to Everett, Wash., two months ago but remains on patrol in the Persian Gulf. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper has told his troops their normal three-month overseas rotations will be extended indefinitely.
"The ripple effect of a protracted deployment against Iraq will be felt throughout the military personnel system," says Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute.
A long wait could impact allies as well. Faced with large antiwar demonstrations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia may have the most to lose.
"The longer things go past the first week in April, the more trouble they get in at home," says Col. Daniel Smith (USA, ret.), senior fellow with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "Kuwait probably has a longer lead time, one or two additional months," adds Colonel Smith, "But they cannot keep the northern half of their country [where US forces are massed] off-limits to civilians forever."
Others look at recent history and worry that it could be repeated.
"For everyone at the older, senior level the Vietnam experience is not to be repeated," says Captain Seaquist. "Everything was sacrificed in order to keep going there. Service leaders will keep worrying that they could end up with much smaller services if they are not careful."