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WAR TO TEST WHETHER MILITARY IS SPREAD TOO THIN

After cutbacks in defense spending during the 1990s, U.S. armed forces may find resources stretched to the limit by a new kind of wide-ranging warfare that could drag on for years.

Thirteen months after complaining that the next president would inherit "a military in decline," George W. Bush sent U.S. forces into battle.

Will that supposed decline hamper the war effort?

In the short run, it won't, according to defense contractors and analysts.

But the longer the war goes and the wider it spreads, the more likely it is that U.S. forces and their supplies will be stretched thin in the wake of cutbacks in defense funding during the 1990s.

And a widespread war against terrorism could reveal that while the U.S. military is by no means fading, it may be a bit behind the times, experts say.

America's military was built to wage two simultaneous old-style ground wars, not manhunts for terrorists.

As a result, U.S. Special Forces and other special operations units such as Delta Force and Navy SEALs -- the elite troops that likely will pursue terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden -- might get worn down, the experts say.

There already appears to be a shortage of key spy planes. And a widespread parts shortage could be an annoyance, though not a crisis, if the war were to spread beyond Afghanistan.

"We've always worked to be prepared for a major conflict anywhere in the world," said John Williams, an analyst with the National Defense Industrial Association. "But in a conflict like this, there may be a mismatch between our resources and the mission."

That mismatch pales in comparison to the one that existed at the start of World War II, when America had to undergo a massive mobilization just to get ready to fight, Williams said.

Nevertheless, this new war does raise questions about the structure of the U.S. military. Most importantly, in a military of 1.4 million, only 25,000 are assigned to special operations.

As a result, those elite commando and search-and-rescue units frequently are deployed for six months at a time in some of the most dangerous and pressure-packed work in the military. Some retired officers worry about their bench strength.

"We probably need more of them, because the ones we have now are running ragged," said Jay Farrar, a former Marine lieutenant colonel who analyzes military strength for the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're deploying them beyond the optimum."

Analysts cite many reasons for the small number of special operations personnel. Few people can succeed as a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL. It's tough, specialized work that requires a rare combination of fitness and fearlessness. Besides, there traditionally has been a greater need for vast Army divisions and Air Force squadrons.

Now, though, only one of the nation's 10 Army divisions is deployed in the war on terrorism, and that division will likely support special operations.

Chris Hellman, senior analyst with the left-leaning Center for Defense Information, foresees Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division drawing perimeters of protection around commando units whose mission is to storm terrorist sites and lay waste to anyone in them.

Only time will tell whether such tactics will work, and whether there are enough special operations troops to do the job.

"We'll be relying on the smallest, most agile units, and there aren't that many of those," Hellman said.

Over the long term, many experts expect the Pentagon to push for an expansion of special operations units as part of a restructuring of the U.S. military. In fact, upon taking office in January, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed for such a restructuring, which would involve base closures.

He met with resistance from the armed services, but he is pressing forward nevertheless. Earlier this month, he released a "Quadrennial Defense Review" that argues for the creation of a leaner military.

Promising again to eliminate obsolete units, Rumsfeld vowed to move resources "into new concepts, capabilities and organizations that maximize our war-fighting effectiveness."

That calls for spending much more money on more modern military equipment, that Pentagon review said. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the military is spending less on equipment this year than it did in 1980, before the huge Reagan-era defense buildup.

The dearth in spending can be seen, in one narrow way, in Afghanistan today. Military analysts suspect that there is a shortage of Predators, the unmanned spy planes the Air Force is using to assess what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan.

Checking procurement records, "I can't find more than 15" of the high-tech drones, Hellman said.

It is hard to say whether the shortage is critical, because the military is not exactly discussing such matters and because the CIA could have some Predators of its own, Hellman said.

Other major shortages are unlikely to cause problems unless and until the war pushes beyond the borders of Afghanistan, experts said. Nevertheless, congressional auditors and others have detailed the potential for problems again and again in recent years.

The Army's helicopters have had chronic parts shortages that force soldiers to cannibalize parts from one aircraft to another, the General Accounting Office reported in July. Two types of Navy aircraft are similarly troubled.

Perhaps most importantly, the Air Force's primary airlift plane, the giant and ancient C-5, is typically ready for action only 60 percent of the time, the Pentagon said. Analysts said that this could pose a problem if the United States suddenly had to mobilize a huge number of troops for a ground war against a more conventional enemy such as Iraq.

In general, though, analysts are not breaking a sweat over the parts shortages.

"There are certain specific systems with very specific problems," said John Pike, who heads GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. "How much of a problem it would be may be difficult to predict."

Such defense deficiencies morphed into a huge political campaign issue last year, and it is one that military experts laugh at today. Bush made a big deal of the fact that two of the Army's 10 divisions were deemed unready for battle -- when the only reason they were rated unready is that their troops had just returned from the Balkans, Pike said.

The real question is not whether those divisions are ready, but whether they are even necessary, defense analysts said. And that is the kind of question the Pentagon will be answering during what may be the biggest defense buildup in 20 years.

Spending on equipment will have to increase from about $60 billion a year to as much as $110 billion just to keep U.S. forces armed with the latest equipment, said Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Analysts expect the next huge wave of defense spending to include plenty of money for special operations units and the equipment they use, namely helicopters. Even the controversial V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane and keeps crashing in its test runs, might find new life, given its usefulness in commando raids.

"I think there certainly will be a shift in emphasis in the U.S. armed services reflecting the fact that a face-to-face tank war or air war is unlikely to occur," said Robert T. Brady, chairman of Moog Inc., an East Aurora company that makes parts for the Osprey.

"The sort of thing we're involved in in Afghanistan is likely to represent the much more typical situation."

News Washington Bureau assistant David J. Hill contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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