WASHINGTON -- In a bipartisan show of concern that the military is dangerously overworked, legislators said yesterday the Pentagon is stretching troops to their limit and perhaps undermining the nation's future force.
Amid fears that the high level of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan could discourage potential new service members, Representative John McHugh, Republican of New York, said it was worrisome that most reserve components were falling below recruiting goals for the year.
As of May 31, the Army National Guard was reported at 88 percent of its goal, the Air National Guard at 93 percent, and the Air Force Reserve at 91 percent.
"We're taxing our part-time soldiers, our Guard and Reserves, nearly to the breaking point," said Representative 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."
Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican of California who is the committee chairman, added: "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 retired soldiers who had served in the Middle East and were part of the nation's Individual Ready Reserve.
It was the first time since the 1991 Gulf War that the Army is forcing thousands of former soldiers back into uniform.
Stretched by war needs, the Pentagon already had declared a "stop-loss" to prevent active troops from leaving once they have finished their obligation.
The Army in April broke a promise to some active-duty units, including the First 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 legislators 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 troop levels with stop-loss and other devices.
"I really think you're wrong," Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, told Chu.
Cole said that the Pentagon is doing a superb job of managing 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.
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.
More than 5,600 former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve -- 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.
Perhaps thousands more are expected 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.