The strain of fighting a longer, bloodier war in Iraq than US commanders originally foresaw brings forth a question that most would have dismissed only a year ago: Is the military in danger of running out of reserve troops?
At first glance, there are nearly 1.2 million men and women on the reserve rolls, and only about 70,000 are now in Iraq to supplement the regulars. But a deeper look inside the Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve suggests a grimmer picture: At the current pace and size of American troop deployments to Iraq, the availability of suitable reserve combat troops could become a problem as early as next year.
The National Guard says it has about 86,000 citizen soldiers available for future deployments to Iraq, fewer than it has sent there over the past two years. And it has used up virtually all of its most readily deployable combat brigades.
In an indication of the concern about a thinning of its ranks, last month the National Guard tripled the re-enlistment bonuses offered to soldiers in Iraq who can fill critical skill shortages. The Army Reserve has about 37,500 deployable soldiers left -- 18 percent of its total troop strength.
The Marine Corps Reserve appears to be in a comparable position, because most of its 40,000 troops have been mobilized at least once already. Both the Army and the Marines are soliciting reservists to volunteer for duty in Iraq.
"The reserves are pretty well shot" after the Pentagon makes the next troop rotation, starting this summer, said Robert Goldich, a defense analyst.
Of the National Guard's 15 best-trained, best-equipped and most ready-to-deploy combat brigades, all but one are either in Iraq now, have demobilized after returning from a one-year tour there or have been alerted for duty this year and next.
The exception is the South Carolina National Guard's 218th Infantry Brigade, which has had not been deployed to Iraq as a full brigade because smaller groups of its soldiers have been mobilized periodically for homeland defense and other missions abroad.
The Army Reserve, with about 205,000 citizen soldiers on its rolls for support rather than combat duty, has been so heavily used since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that, for practical purposes, it has only about 37,500 troops available to perform the kinds of missions required in Iraq.
The Army Reserve chief, Lieutenant General James Helmly, recently advised other Army leaders that his citizen militia is in "grave danger" of being unable to meet all its operational responsibilities, saying the Reserve is "rapidly degenerating into a broken force."