WASHINGTON – The military chiefs are unanimous: The Army and Marines are ready for war, the Air Force has never been more ready, and the Navy is the most ready it's been in decades.
So went the testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday from the nation's military service chiefs, the men whose job is to make sure American forces get the best training and equipment before they go into battle.
Despite their upbeat message, they said they have misgivings that the high level of missions brought on by the war on terrorism may stretch troops too thin.
They told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they're looking at ways to relieve the pressure, especially on special forces who have come under great use in what officials say will be a long-term, different kind of conflict.
With a couple of dozen aides sitting behind them, creating a backdrop of navy blue and khaki, the chiefs were a picture of can-do and confidence when senators questioned them on readiness, the possibility that Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction against American forces and a range of other subjects.
"Sir, your Marines are ready," the Marine commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, told the committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
"Sir, your Air Force has never been more ready, and we're ready to do anything the president asks," said the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper.
"This force is ready, and it is the most ready that it has been in my entire military life," Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, said of his Navy.
By law, the responsibility for coming up with and carrying out a battle plan to cover any Iraq action belongs to Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the combatant commander. His U.S. Central Command covers two dozen countries from East Africa through the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan.
But even though the service chiefs don't run the war, they wear two important hats.
As members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with the chairman and vice chairman, they offer advice to the president, the defense secretary and the National Security Council. As chiefs of their respective services, each is responsible for managing his branch, similar to the chief operating officer of a company.
Clark told the committee, which convened to talk about the Defense Department's 2004 budget request, that much of his force was deployed overseas.
"Of my 306 ships, 195 of them are under way this morning -- six of the 12 carrier battle groups and two-thirds of the amphibious force carrying the Marines," he said. "They are under way in support of the nation's interests, leading the defense of the United States of America away from our shores, ... taking the sovereignty of the United States of America anywhere we have to take it."
Hagee said 63 percent of the Marine Corps' operating forces currently are deployed to the world's trouble spots, from Afghanistan to the southern Philippines to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Jumper noted that recruiting and retention of forces have improved in recent years but said aging aircraft are worrisome. He also said officials are trying to make the best use of the airmen they have by seeing that people in uniform aren't wasted on jobs that others could do.
"They are stressed, and we're using them on multiple missions that a few years ago was not anticipated," Army Chief Gen. Eric Shinseki said.
Clark said the Navy is closely watching the number of missions it is assigned.
"Am I concerned over the next 60 to 90 days?" he asked. "No, I'm very confident."
Some were unimpressed.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Mass., questioned whether the Bush administration, being so focused on Iraq, isn't paying enough attention to other threats -- such as North Korea's nuclear program and pursuing Osama bin Laden -- despite preparing for years to be ready to fight two major wars simultaneously.
"It appears to me that we developed and sustained a two-war military only to have it run by an administration with a one-war attention span," Kennedy said.