U.S. Military Stretched Dangerously Thin


Regime change in Iraq ought to be a godsend to George Bush’s re-election campaign, but it comes with an ominous warning for future U.S. national security. With the American military deployed as an occupation force in Iraq and top cop in Afghanistan, the U.S. armed forces would be spread far and wide. There are 240,000 American troops in the Gulf region now and thousands more headed that way.

This sounds like a lot of soldiers, but whether they can fight the next global conflict depicted by some Bush adherents is uncertain.

Former CIA head James Woolsey, who’s often mentioned as a possible overseer of occupied Iraq, recently told students at the University of California in Los Angeles we already are involved in a fourth world war, the third having been the Cold War. As he sees it, we’ve got three main enemies in the near term: the hardline mullahs in Iran, “fascists” in Iraq and Syria, and the Muslim fundamentalists of Al Qaeda. “This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us,” Woolsey said. “Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War.”

Another group of neo-conservative ideologues in the Bush administration wistfully hopes for a series of conflicts cascading over one another and leading to a complete reorganization of the Middle East. This pipe dream culminates with the dumping of the royal family in Saudi Arabia and the current regime in Egypt.

But whether our armed forces can carry out the aspirations of these planners is another matter. As it stands, 60 percent of the marine corps is deployed beyond U.S. borders, mostly in Iraq, Knight-Ridder Newspapers reports. Most of the air force’s long-range B-1 and B-2 bombers are tied up in the war, as are half the navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups. The army has 10 divisions of 15,000 troops, and four of those divisions are in Iraq or Afghanistan, with parts of three others on their way to the Persian Gulf.

If something unforeseen happens and the Korean peninsula should blow up, we’d be in big trouble. We’d even be in a mess if something were to go wrong in Bosnia and Kosovo, or if the guerrilla war in Colombia got out of hand. We have one division on the demarcation line between the two Koreas. That’s a very thin wall to fend off North Korea’s million-strong army. There is another U.S. division in Hawaii, and another just back from Afghanistan getting itself together in upstate New York. That’s it, all the divisions we have.

Before 9-11, Bush was trying to downsize the military, and even though that policy was reversed to fight the war on terror, U.S. armed forces are smaller than they were during the Gulf War, when the army had 18 divisions and 700,000-plus people in uniform. Currently the army’s strength stands at 476,000 men and women. The 580 ships in the navy at the time of the first Gulf war have declined to 306. Airwing then stood at 165, and today it’s at 91.

What would we do if more conflicts break out? Without the ability to field large numbers of troops, we might well turn to the use of small nuclear devices, an option the Bush government has refused to rule out.

Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a liberal think tank that keeps track of military matters, told the Voice the U.S. would only get in trouble if somebody else caused the war.

“That would be problematic, and would almost certainly require the U.S. to transfer forces from other parts of the world.” In the case of trouble in North Korea, he said, U.S. troops could expect South Korean reinforcements.

But if we ended up needing to fight simultaneous conflicts like the one in Iraq, he said, “It’s conceivable we couldn’t do it.”

Research assistance: Phoebe St. John

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003

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