THE RICHEST, most powerful nation in the world should not be in the position of debating whether it has enough troops to meets its basic security requirements. But that is the situation now, after a leaked Pentagon report described the Army as nearing a breaking point because of frequent deployments of units to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week said he was not familiar with the report and called the Army ''battle-hardened" and ''not broken." A day later, though, his top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, acknowledged that US forces are ''stretched." As Congress begins work on the next federal budget, it should look beyond Rumsfeld for views on whether the Army needs a major and costly expansion.
This new round of concern about the readiness of the Army was set off by an internal report for the Defense Department by Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer. Krepinevich noted the Army's failure in 2005 to meet its recruiting goals and said the Pentagon risks ''breaking the force in the form of a catastrophic decline" in recruitment and reenlistment.
Rumsfeld's weakness for denying the obvious when it comes to necessary troop levels was most on display in 2003 when he sacked General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, for telling Congress before the Iraq war that conquering and occupying that country would require several hundred thousand soldiers. Rumsfeld succeeded in overthrowing Saddam Hussein with a much smaller force, but it lacked the manpower to ensure social order or to locate and secure all the munitions depots that have since provided the insurgents with explosives.
The Army's plight would be eased considerably if the United States is able to reduce greatly its forces in Iraq, a process that has begun. The danger is that, because of the pressure on the military, the Bush administration might persist in withdrawing even if the buildup of Iraqi units as a counter to the insurgents is not successful. General Casey yesterday denied that the strain on forces is driving the decision to pull back.
There is little doubt, however, that the Army would be hard put to meet new challenges, whether from Iran or North Korea. Last fall, Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a retired Marine colonel, said that the Army is ''broken, worn out" and that its very presence in Iraq spurs the insurgency. At the time, it was assumed that Murtha was speaking in part for uniformed officers who could not risk being so frank. Before Congress budgets more billions for exotic weapons systems, it should insist on candid opinions from frontline officers on whether the Army is suffering from too few men and women.