WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the US military to a point where it is at higher risk of not meeting operational goals and could face difficulty in dealing with potential additional foes, though officials maintained that US forces could handle any military threat.
An annual risk assessment by General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that higher standards imposed on commanders and the ongoing global war on terror has made it harder on the US military to meet those higher standards.
Presented to members of Congress yesterday, the assessment found the risk has increased but is trending lower, according to defense and military officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon.
Underscoring the stress facing the armed services, the Army reported separately yesterday that its recruiting efforts are continuing to slip, as recruiters nationwide drew less than 60 percent of the April goal of 6,600 new recruits into the active duty force. It was the third straight month in which the Army missed its recruiting goal.
According to the Army, the recruiting effort is 16 percent behind where it should be at this point in the fiscal year, and current figures project a nearly 10 percent shortfall by the end of the fiscal year in September.
Army recruiting officials believe enhanced recruiting efforts and incentives should increase their enlistments over the summer, but they would have to consistently beat monthly goals over the next five months to meet annual goals. While the Army should have had 42,585 new recruits for the year as of the end of April, it had 35,833. It hopes to have 80,000 new enlistments this fiscal year.
''We are still cautiously optimistic," said Colonel Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman.
Myers's risk assessment is a rare open acknowledgment that the stresses on the force and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have an impact on other military operations. While the assessment does not indicate a greater threat to the nation, nor a greater threat to the military, it does indicate additional conflicts could take longer, or eat up more resources, than expected.
Military and defense officials spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity yesterday because the risk assessment is a classified document, but they wanted to emphasize that the heightened risk does not indicate vulnerability on the part of US forces and that it should not be read by other nations as an opportunity to attack. The officials said the United States would win any projected conflict across the globe, but the path to victory could be more complicated.
''There is no doubt of what the outcome is going to be," said a top defense official. ''Risk to accomplish the task isn't even part of the discussion. The way we accomplish the task is."
A senior military official said, for example, that it is obvious that if another conflict arises while the United States does battle in Iraq and Afghanistan and fights the global war on terror, it would not be as easily accomplished as if the other three conflicts did not exist.
''It wouldn't be as pretty," the official said.
Defense officials are working to mitigate the risks by following through with plans to transform the military, making it more agile and lethal, and by looking at how US troops are positioned around the globe. By raising operational standards, officials believe commanders can save lives by acting faster and by using fewer resources.
The military's need for manpower on the ground, however, continues to highlight demands on the Army and the Marines, the two services charged with conducting the ongoing wars.
Along with the Army missing recruiting targets, the Marines missed contracting targets in February and March, though by relatively small amounts. The Army Reserve has also missed its recruiting targets each of the past four months, in some cases dramatically.
The Army's basic training center at Fort Benning, Ga., is training seven companies currently, half of its maximum capacity of 14 companies, according to Colonel Bill Gallagher, commander of the Basic Combat Training Brigade. Moreover, each company of fresh recruits has 190 troops compared with a maximum possible of 220, he said.