The war in Iraq has achieved its own share of milestones: It is the third-longest in American history and will soon be the second-most expensive. And now, it's the first prolonged war since the American Revolution that has been fought by an all-volunteer military.
It's no secret that the U.S. Army is too small to face the current demands placed on it by its civilian leaders. By 2012, the Army — the largest of the four service branches — will grow its active-duty component to about 550,000 soldiers. And the Army's top military commander, Gen. George Casey, wants to make it bigger.
"I believe that the 547,000 active [duty component] that we're building is a good milestone," Casey told members of the Senate Armed Services committee on Thursday. "But I believe it's probably not big enough."
The Army chief now says that if the United States were to take part in another conflict, he probably wouldn't have the troops to carry out the mission.
"The current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," Casey said. "We're consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and are unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as necessary for other contingencies."
Lately, the Army has boasted of strong recruiting and retention numbers. But peel back the layers and you find that recruitment standards are dropping, and some of the best soldiers are getting out.
Right now, the Army faces a shortage of about 3,000 majors and captains. By 2010, that number could double. Close to 58 percent of the graduates from West Point's class of 2002 no longer serve in the Army. It's a record number.
More than half of the Army's total equipment is either in Iraq or Afghanistan. Half of the Army's fighting units — Brigade Combat Teams — are not considered ready to deploy. And the Army, stretched to the breaking point, can't maintain a strategic reserve of troops at home that might be needed to protect the U.S. or U.S. interests abroad, should that need arise.
To make things slightly more complicated, the military now faces a potential crisis in funding. While the Pentagon's budget eats up about one-third of the total amount of money the government has to spend, the war in Iraq requires "supplemental" funding.
Congress hasn't been able to legislate an end to the war. So instead, it has tried to use the power of the purse. On Wednesday night, the House passed a bill that would send $50 billion to the Pentagon to continue funding the war. But President Bush says he won't sign it because the bill calls for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
The Pentagon warns that if the money doesn't come soon, as many as 100,000 civilian employees across the country could face temporary lay-offs.