U.S. troop buildup and war could hamper homeland defense, military leaders say

Thursday, January 25, 2007

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq and the demands of the four-year-old war are causing concern at the Pentagon that the conflict could hamper the military's response to domestic crises.

The head of the National Guard said Wednesday his troops lack the necessary equipment and that will hurt their ability to respond to natural or manmade disasters at home.

"I am not as comfortable as some others seem to be in accepting the low readiness levels here at home," Lt. Gen. Steven Blum said. "It creates a problem. It will cost us time and time will translate into lives."

Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Northern Command, also said there may be "specific equipment shortfalls that, in the longer term, could have an impact on our ability to respond."

Keating also said that right now, "the analysis we've done does not indicate any significant degradation in our ability to respond" to a crisis at home.

Their comments came as opposition grew in Congress to President Bush's plan to send more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq in the coming months.

The military leaders echoed warnings from other military commanders about the buildup's potential effect on the readiness levels of forces at home.

Some at the Pentagon believe the training and equipment shortfalls affect homeland defense. Yet others believe the military is big enough and strong enough to respond to any crisis -- but that response would not be as neat or as quick as it should be.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, and Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the House Armed Services Committee that the buildup is putting more pressure on the military, and that the response to a crisis elsewhere probably would be slower and more risky.

Schoomaker said Army units moving into Iraq are fully trained, staffed and equipped. But, he said, "I have continued concerns about the nondeployed forces," as well as the "strategic depth of our Army and its readiness."

Army officials also say it will be a struggle to get all the equipment they need for the buildup. Some troops, they said, may not have all their equipment as they train for the mission, but would have it as they cross into Iraq from Kuwait.

Equipment and training are main concerns for the troops at home, particularly for National Guard units that have scrambled to get equipment.

Units have resorted to swapping equipment among the states to ensure that trucks, helicopters and communications equipment are where they are needed most.

Noting the Guard was short on equipment before the war began, Andrew Feickert, national defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said deployed units then had to leave much equipment in Iraq.

"Units that have returned are trying to replace and repair their equipment," Feickert said.

"With this new situation, they might be called upon to come up with even more equipment to bring deploying units up to strength."

Keating said concerns focus more on whether the military has the training and equipment to respond to multiple situations at one time.

The military, he said, needs more training and equipment for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks, including chemical suits, medical equipment and treatment facilities.

He said he is working with Blum to ensure that specialized Guard units needed to respond to such incidents would be kept in the United States as much as possible.

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