WASHINGTON - As they wade through the largest defense budget proposal since World War II, lawmakers are hearing an increasingly grim message from the nation's top military commanders:
Despite large and steady jumps in defense spending, the generals and admirals say, five years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have worn out much of the military equipment and dangerously eroded their ability to handle additional threats.
"I'm skeptical that we have adequate forces available" to respond to a new crisis in Europe, Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. European Command, told a House subcommittee last week.
When they come home from duty in Iraq, his troops can prepare for little other than their next tour in that battle zone, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, testified in February.
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"We're not doing amphibious training, we're not doing mountain-warfare training," or other training that would be needed "in another type of contingency," Conway told senators.
Similar warnings are coming from Navy and Air Force leaders, though their forces are bearing less of the burden.
The Navy has dispatched thousands of medics, Seabee construction units and explosives disposal experts to support ground forces in Iraq, Adm. Robert Willard, the service's vice chief, told members of Congress last week. Leaders worry those sailors are being worn out by repeated tours of duty. The medical deployments have "stressed our ability to provide health care" to sailors at home, he added.
Such alarms fall short of last fall's declaration by former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell that the Army is "about broken."
But because active duty military leaders traditionally are upbeat in public about the state of their forces - and perhaps because Congress' new Democratic majority is questioning the Bush administration's military management - the warnings are getting high-profile attention on Capitol Hill.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., last week asked congressional investigators to open two inquiries - one on the effect of the Iraq War on U.S. military equipment and a second on reports that some wounded soldiers are being returned to combat zones with injuries that could impair their performance.
In the Senate, Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., have grilled a parade of generals in recent weeks about their failure to spotlight readiness problems sooner.
"It was pretty well known to many of us that we were going to be in this thing for a long time," McCain said in February. "It was very (clear) that these things were going to happen. And yet, somehow, it doesn't seem that the Pentagon anticipated, at least sufficiently."
The services "can't hide this stuff anymore," said Larry Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.