WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2008 – The nation’s future roles in Iraq and Afghanistan will drive, to some extent, how long it takes for the U.S. military to become a more balanced and ready force, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday. Heavy operations in the regions are a drain on personnel, equipment, funds and training time the military could otherwise use to rebuild its force, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, told reporters traveling back to Washington with him after a Navy warship christening ceremony in Pascagoula, Miss.

“I think for us to get into any kind of balanced situation in the long run, it will take us years. And that will greatly depend on the future op tempo, specifically focused on Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mullen said.

As the military recruits to grow its force by nearly 100,000 over the next four years and U.S. forces begin to draw down in Iraq, Mullen said, the priority will be extending the “dwell time” servicemembers spend at their home stations between deployments.

The increased dwell time — ideally two years between one-year deployments — is needed to allow troops more time with their families, but also to afford units more time to train in conventional warfare skills, the chairman explained. Most training now is focused on counterinsurgency operations, because that dominates the needs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, Mullen said, that focus leaves the force unbalanced and potentially unprepared for a more conventional threat.

“I think we need to have a balanced force, and we need to look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. And the capabilities we need in the future, I believe, will go beyond (counterinsurgency),” Mullen said.

The chairman predicted a future with persistent conflict and irregular warfare with heavy involvement by all of the services. Counterinsurgency operations are a part of that future, he said, but conventional warfare skills cannot perish to preparing exclusively for counterinsurgency.

“I think it’s important you don’t let (conventional warfare) skills totally atrophy. We need to achieve that balance in terms of preparation for the future. (It is a) very uncertain world, very unpredictable world, very dangerous world. We need to have a full range of capabilities,” he said.

And, that full range of capabilities needs to extend past the ground forces, Mullen said. He said right now all eyes are on the ground forces, and many don’t realize the contributions, and the strain, on the Air Force and Navy.

“What often gets lost in the focus on the ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is what (the Air Force and Navy) are doing now,” Mullen said.

The Navy has deployed about one-third of its force in support of the war, he said, and the Air Force has been providing air strike support in theater since the first Gulf war. But equal to their efforts directly supporting the war are their efforts as a strategic deterrent elsewhere in the world, and they provide much military might in terms of U.S. conventional warfare capabilities.

“In a great part, the Navy and the Air Force provide an ability to mitigate some of the strategic risks globally that are going on out there. We’ve got to be engaged. We’ve got to be out in other places. The Navy and the Air Force are providing that,” the chairman said. “They’re very busy. They’re not as pushed as the Army and Marine Corps, but they’re still busy.”

Recent aircraft groundings in the Air Force have caused the chairman concern, he said, pointing to the critical need to modernize and recapitalize across the services. He said the Air Force has suffered from the inability to get rid of its old aircraft, constrained in many cases by laws that don’t allow the service to invest in new capabilities.

The Air Force last November grounded its entire fleet of 700 aging F-15s for inspections after one came apart during air combat operations. About 160 of the aircraft’s F-15C version remain grounded for structural problems.

“Those are old airplanes. 25 to 30 years old. So we’re going to have to recapitalize those. And those are indicative of the kinds of things that I think we are going to have to do for the future,” Mullen said.

“The Air Force is still our persistent global reach, air dominant force that I think we’ve got to continue to invest in. They do a great deal of support in the current fight … in addition to that they’re really our strategic reserve right now,” he said. “They provide the strategic depth that we need should we have a problem in some other part of the world.”

But not all rebuilding will come as the result of increased funding. The chairman said services across the department need to look at how they can increase their efficiency, and then pass those savings along to recapitalization, a task Mullen said he was able to do most recently as the chief of naval operations before he assumed the military’s top post Oct. 1.

Mullen also noted that costs are going up for the military’s three biggest expenses: people, health care and procurement. He said he is open to increasing the defense budget in relation to the gross domestic product, but that any change should result from debate and should reflect the American people’s wishes. The defense budget now is about 4 percent of the nation’s GDP.

“Should it be more than that? I think that’s a discussion we ought to have. We ought to have that debate,” Mullen said. “We ought to have it in the country, and we ought to make it vigorous so we understand what we’re procuring, what we need for defense, how we support our people. … It’s vital, and it’s timely because of the dangers we face.”

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