March 23, 2007 / 12:08 AM / 10 years ago

Despite strains, U.S. could fight a third war: Gates

<p>U.S.Secretary of Defense Robert Gates briefs the press at the Pentagon in Washington, March 22, 2007.Larry Downing</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned on Thursday the Army would face problems without emergency funds but insisted U.S. forces could fight a third war despite being stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He painted a mixed picture of the impact Iraq has had on U.S. military readiness at a time when Congress is considering tying a Bush administration request for emergency war funding to a deadline for pulling troops out of the conflict.

Gates had raised concerns about a demand by some Democrats to set a deadline. He declined on Thursday to say what Congress should do or to discuss a threat by President George W. Bush to veto a bill linking funds to a withdrawal timetable.

"It's my responsibility to let everybody involved in the debate know the impact of the timing of the decisions," he said. "I think that that's about as far as I should go."

More than four years into the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the U.S. military shows increasing signs of strain. Top defense officials say the United States would prevail in a third major confrontation, but it would take longer.

Asked how the U.S. military was positioned in the face of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with a major confrontation in a third state, Gates said adversaries should not think the United States too weak to fight.

"Our ability to defend the United States despite the heavy commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan remains very strong and every adversary should be aware of that," he said. He did not identify any specific adversaries.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

But questions remain about readiness, and the secretary enumerated several problems the Army would face if Congress does not pass $100 billion in emergency funding, such as curtailed training and equipment repairs.

Gates said by way of example that if Congress did not approve the funds by April 15, the Army might have to curtail or suspend some training for reserve forces, slow training of units scheduled to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and stop repairing equipment used in training.

If the funds are not approved by May 15, Gates said, the Army might have to extend some soldiers' tours because other units are not ready, delay the formation of new brigade combat teams, reduce equipment repair work at Army depots and delay or curtail deployment of combat teams to training.

Also, in another signal of stress, the military said on Thursday that 1,200 Marines and sailors would stay in Okinawa, Japan, for an additional five months so other Marines scheduled to move into Iraq can stay home and train for the mission. That allows the Marine Corps to maintain its target for "dwell time" -- the time a Marine is home between deployments.

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