U.S. military at breaking point

The Army’s top general warned on Thursday that his force "will break" without thousands more active duty troops and greater use of the reserves. He issued the warning as President Bush considers new strategies for Iraq.

As part of the effort to relieve the strain on the force, the Army is developing plans to accelerate the creation of two new combat brigades, The Associated Press has learned.

According to defense officials, the plan may require shifting equipment and personnel from other military units so the two new brigades could be formed next year and be ready to be sent the war zone in 2008. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are not final.

Noting the strain put on the force by operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said he wants to increase his half-million-member Army beyond the 30,000 troops already authorized in recent years.

Though he didn’t give an exact number, he said it would take significant time, saying 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers could be added per year. Schoomaker has said it costs roughly $1.2 billion to increase the Army by 10,000 soldiers.

Officials also need greater authority to tap into the National Guard and Reserve, long ago set up as a strategic reserve but now needed as an integral part of the nation’s deployed forces, Schoomaker told a commission studying possible changes in those two forces.

"Over the last five years, the sustained strategic demand … is placing a strain on the Army’s all-volunteer force," Schoomaker told the commission in a Capitol Hill hearing. He added, "At this pace … we will break the active component" unless reserves can be called up more to help.

Accelerating the creation of two combat brigades would give the Army greater flexibility to allow units to return home for at least a year before having to go back to the battlefront. Brigades average 3,500 troops.

Since 2003, the Army has been restructuring in order to increase the number of brigades in each combat division from three to four. The purpose is to increase the pool of brigades available for troop rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan and to make each brigade more self-sustaining.

White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to characterize Bush’s response to Schoomaker’s comments, but he said Bush "takes seriously any of the requests from the service branch chiefs."

Schoomaker’s testimony and the new Army plans came as Bush continues his assessment of the Iraq war. Bush held three days of urgent meetings with top generals and other advisers. Federal agencies have presented their options to Bush and the White House National Security Council and are providing additional details and answering questions.

The military options being considered include a short-term surge in troops to stem the violence and an increased effort to train and equip Iraqi forces.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Schoomaker acknowledged that Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, is looking at several military options, including shifting many troops from combat missions to training Iraqi units.

The Army in recent days has been looking at how many additional troops could be sent to Iraq if the president decides a surge in forces would be helpful. But, Army officials say, only about 10,000 to 15,000 troops could be sent and an end to the war would have to be in sight because it would drain the pool of available soldiers for combat.

"We would not surge without a purpose," Schoomaker told reporters. "And that purpose should be measurable."

A number of administration officials have suggested privately that — while Bush has considered the possibility of a short-term troop increase — there is no consensus from the military on the wisdom of injecting a large number of additional troops.

Another option under discussion is increasing the number of U.S. troops who are placed inside Iraqi army and police units as advisers, boosting the training of the Iraqi forces so they can more quickly take control of their own security.

Military leaders also want adjustments in troop levels to be accompanied by political and economic improvements that could reconcile rival sectarian factions and put young people to work.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, meanwhile, urged the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. At a news conference in Washington, al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader who met with Bush this week, said the timetable should be "flexible" and depend on development of a capable Iraqi security force.

"You’ve done your job," he said at the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S.-financed think tank. Currently, however, he said, "there is across-the-board chaos in my country," with roaming bands of murderers.


Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Robert Burns, Anne Gearan and Anne Plummer Flaherty contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press