WASHINGTON – A classified Pentagon assessment concludes that long battlefield tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with persistent terrorist activity and other threats, have prevented the U.S. military from improving its ability to respond to any new crisis, The Associated Press has learned.
Despite security gains in Iraq, there is still a "significant" risk that the strained U.S. military cannot quickly and fully respond to another outbreak elsewhere in the world, according to the report.
Last year the Pentagon raised that threat risk from "moderate" to "significant." This year, the report will maintain that "significant" risk level — pointing to the U.S. military's ongoing struggle against a stubborn insurgency in Iraq and its lead role in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon, however, will say that efforts to increase the size of the military, replace equipment and bolster partnerships overseas will help lower the risk over time, defense officials said Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified report.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has completed the risk assessment, and it is expected to be delivered to Capitol Hill this month. Because he has concluded the risk is significant, his report will include a letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlining steps the Pentagon is taking to reduce it.
The risk level was raised to significant last year by Mullen's predecessor, Marine Gen. Peter Pace.
On Capitol Hill this week, Mullen provided a glimpse into his thinking on the review. And Pentagon officials Friday confirmed that the assessment is finished and acknowledged some of the factors Gates will cite in his letter.
"The risk has basically stayed consistent, stayed steady," Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee. "It is significant."
He said the 15-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are too long and must be reduced to 12 months, with longer rest periods at home. "We continue to build risk with respect to that," he said.
Other key national security challenges include threats from countries that possess weapons of mass destruction, as well as the need to replace equipment worn out and destroyed during more than six years of war.
On a positive note, Mullen pointed to security gains in Iraq, brought on in part by the increase in U.S. forces ordered there by President Bush last year. There, "the threat has receded and al-Qaida ... is on the run," he said. "We've reduced risk there. We've got more stability there as an example."
The annual review grades the military's ability to meet the demands of the nation's military strategy — which would include fighting the wars as well as being able to respond to any potential outbreaks in places such as North Korea, Iran, Lebanon or China.
The latest review by Mullen covers the military's status during 2007, but the readiness level has seesawed during the Iraq war. For example, the risk for 2004 was assessed as significant, but it improved to moderate in 2005 and 2006.
Last year, when Pace increased the risk level, a report from Gates accompanying the assessment warned that while the military is working to improve its warfighting capabilities, it "may take several years to reduce risk to acceptable levels."
Gates is expected to tell Congress that while the primary goal is to continue to increase the size of the military, it is also critical to step up efforts to work with other nations — as well as other U.S. agencies — to bolster fragile governments through economic development and other support.
And it will reflect his drumbeat for the use of more "soft power" to defeat terrorism, which includes the greater use of civilians in areas such as political development, communications and training.
Pentagon leaders argue that nontraditional conflicts — such as the insurgents and terrorists facing coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — will be the main military battlefields for years to come. And defeating them, they say, will require more than military hardware — or "hard power."