Defense officials share concerns on readiness of U.S.-based forces

Officials assure lawmakers the ongoing congressional debate over the Iraq war will not harm troop morale.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace acknowledged Wednesday that non-deployed U.S. forces are not sufficiently equipped, echoing similar concerns aired recently by Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker and Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau.

"No, ma'am," Pace told the House Armed Services Committee in response to a question from Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kansas, on whether he is satisfied with the readiness levels of military units based in the United States.

But Pace emphasized that the $716.5 billion in new defense spending requested Monday would help boost the readiness levels of these non-deployed units, which have left vehicles and other gear behind in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For instance, the request includes $51.5 billion, far more than has been requested in past years, for the remainder of fiscal 2007 and all of fiscal 2008 to repair and replace equipment lost or damaged during ongoing operations.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's plan to augment the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops would help alleviate stress on the force, and give troops more time to train before redeploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, Pace said. Many active-duty units now deploy every other year, leaving them only 12 months to train before being sent back to combat.

Pace and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also assured committee members that the ongoing congressional debate over the Iraq war would not harm troop morale, diffusing arguments by White House officials and some lawmakers who support President Bush's plan to send more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq.

Deployed troops are "sophisticated enough" to understand that the debate on Capitol Hill is intended to find the "best path forward" in Iraq, Gates said. Pace added there is "no doubt in my mind" that the dialogue in Washington strengthens democracy.

But the military's top officer cautioned that the current discord on Capitol Hill over the war could give comfort to enemies. He also warned against cutting off funding for the war, stating that troops want to know that they have adequate resources to carry out their missions.

The hearing Wednesday, the first in the House on the fiscal 2008 defense budget request, gave several freshman Democratic members of the panel the opportunity to flex their muscles on the Iraq war.

Indeed, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., gave the first crack at questions to the "front row" of the 62-member committee, many of whom won election in November because of public discontent with the war. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., questioned Gates and Pace on establishing benchmarks for the Iraqi security forces.

Meanwhile, Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., an Iraq war veteran, grilled Pentagon leaders on "how this ends." Gates responded that he hopes to begin to pulling troops out of Iraq this year, but acknowledged that as a "best-case" scenario.

While much of the questioning focused on current operations, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., quizzed Gates about the Pentagon's submarine-building plans. Courtney, who last November beat former committee member Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., represents a district that includes General Dynamics' Electric Boat shipyard.

Courtney warned that the Chinese navy is building more than two submarines a year, while the United States will not begin to produce two subs annually until 2012. The lagging production is "almost emblematic" of how increasing war costs are "eating into our seed corn" for future military technologies, Courtney added.