Washington In a bipartisan show of concern that the military is dangerously overworked, lawmakers said Wednesday the Pentagon is stretching troops to their limit and perhaps undermining the nation's future force.
Amid worries the high level of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan could discourage potential new service members, Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., said it was not reassuring that most reserve components were falling below their recruiting goals for the year.
As of May 31, the Army National Guard was reported at 88 percent, the Air National Guard at 93 percent and the Air Force Reserve at 91 percent of their goals.
"We're taxing our part-time soldiers, our Guard and Reserves nearly to the breaking point," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "We have to be aware that the families back home are paying a significant price. We don't want to break the force."
Added Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the committee chairman: "We're also concerned that insufficient force structure and manpower are leading the services to make decisions that I liken to eating the seed corn. That is, in order to make it through today, we do things that mortgage the future."
The Army recently decided to deploy units that have been used to train other soldiers. Hunter also noted that the ratio of reserves to active duty soldiers in Iraq is increasing and he said he was concerned that troops are not getting enough turnaround time back in the States.
Defense Department officials testified at a committee hearing about troop rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The session followed last week's announcement that the Army was calling up soldiers who had already served in the Middle East.
Stretched by war needs, the Pentagon already had declared a "stop-loss" to prevent troops from leaving once they have finished their obligation.
The Army in April broke a promise to some active-duty units, including the 1st Armored Division, that they would not have to serve more than 12 months in Iraq. It also has extended the tours of other units, including some in Afghanistan.
Some lawmakers are seeking a permanent increase in the size of the military. But Pentagon personnel chief David Chu said defense officials can make better use of those in the service by reorganizing brigades, making sure uniformed personnel are not performing jobs civilians could do and temporarily increasing troops levels with stop-loss and other devices.
"I really think you're wrong," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told Chu.
Cole said the Pentagon is doing a superb job of managing it resources, but that "in the end, it does take people, and you are using people pretty hard right now."
"At some point there's a limit in terms of personnel, and I think you're there, Cole said.
De facto draft
Critics have charged that wide use of the stop-loss device and dipping into the Individual Ready Reserve amount to conscripting people to fight in Iraq.
For the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, the Army is forcing thousands of former soldiers back into uniform, a reflection of the strain on the service of the long campaign in Iraq, coming on top of the global fight against terrorism.
More than 5,600 former soldiers -- mostly those who recently finished serving and have skills in military policing, engineering, logistics, medicine or transportation -- will be assigned to National Guard and Reserve units scheduled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, officials announced last week.
Members of the Individual Ready Reserve, perhaps thousands more are likely to be called up next year, the Pentagon said.
People in the Individual Ready Reserve are distinct from the National Guard and Reserve because they do not perform regularly scheduled training and are not paid as reservists.
They are eligible to be recalled in an emergency because their active duty stints did not complete the service obligation in their enlistment contracts.