SHANNON, Ireland – The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on the Army, but the soldiers who are due home next spring are fit to return to a war zone if called upon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Sunday.
Military officials have said only two of the Army's 10 active-duty divisions will be at full strength for any new conflict next year.
The four Army divisions currently serving in Iraq are expected to need about six months to rest, retrain and repair equipment when they return from Iraq early next year. With three divisions set to rotate into Iraq and another into Afghanistan as replacements, about 80 percent of the Army's fighting strength will be either on the mend or on duty fighting terror and stabilizing the two countries.
One of the two remaining divisions, the 3rd Infantry, is just back from Iraq and not yet up to full capacity.
Rumsfeld, however, said the Army's rating system for combat readiness may be outdated and inappropriate during a period in which the nation is at war.
In an interview aboard his plane while flying from Iraq to a refueling stop in Ireland on Sunday, Rumsfeld said he intended to discuss the matter soon with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker (search).
"If you are going to use metrics that are fashioned for peacetime and you think that they should apply in a circumstance such as we're in -- which is not peacetime -- then I think it at least raises a caution flag," Rumsfeld said.
"Our force today is as trained, equipped, experienced, combat hardened" as in any recent time, Rumsfeld said. Even though their vehicles and aircraft need refurbishing or replacement and the troops need rest and fresh training, that does not mean they are not ready for further combat, he added.
After recent war-gaming exercises, senior military commanders have concluded that the United States has "the capabilities today to fulfill" the Pentagon's contingency plans for war, Rumsfeld said.
"So in terms of risk -- that type of risk -- military experts do not believe we have a circumstance that is in any way difficult," he said.
Army officials acknowledge the force is stretched but say the drop in readiness will not leave America vulnerable should a new fight arise with an adversary such as North Korea. Troops from the National Guard, reserves and the other military services are capable of joining any fight, and the recovering soldiers could be quickly reactivated if they are needed, officials say.
"We've got great soldiers, and they can go right back into a conflict, but they've got to retrain," Kim Waldron (search), a spokeswoman for Army Forces Command in Atlanta, said Saturday.
The Army's 4th Infantry, 101st Airborne, 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne division are to leave Iraq by next May. When those troops return, they will need at least six months to rest, resume training and repair helicopters, tanks, Humvees and other gear that has been pushed to or past the breaking point in Iraq's harsh desert environment.
During the retraining, those divisions' formal readiness ratings will fall to the lowest or second-lowest level, first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
"The dip in readiness is a natural result of troops returning home," Waldron said. "It's not something we allow, it's just something that happens when troops come home."
U.S. military readiness could become a touchy issue for President Bush, who criticized then-President Clinton for allowing two divisions to drop to low readiness levels after deployments in the Balkans in the late 1990s.
Some in the Army have grumbled about the strains on the force. "Beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division army," former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki said when he retired last summer.
Supporters of enlarging the military say the situation shows just how thin the war on terror has stretched the Army.
"The Army will always march at the sound of the guns, regardless of the condition they are in. But the reality is they're not going to go with the same kind of efficiency and force that they were prepared to go (with) six months or a year ago," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told the Los Angeles Times after a trip to the war front.
"They would have to scramble; they would have to divert resources that are scheduled to go to Iraq and Afghanistan; they would have to improvise."
Some in Congress have called for increasing the size of the Army, arguing that it is overstretched in Iraq. They worry that the strain will lead to a serious dropoff in recruiting.
Rumsfeld said Sunday he shares the worry about a decline in recruiting, and he has instructed aides to take pre-emptive measures, such as targeted financial incentives.