A decision to call former marines back to active duty reflects deepening strains on the US military amid spiralling violence in Iraq, a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and tensions with Iran, analysts said.
The US Marine Corps disclosed this week that it has been authorized to call up as many as 2,500 marines at a time from its inactive reserves to fill shortfalls in the elite force.
"It's no secret that we're very busy," said Brigadier General Michael Barbero, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
The marines have relied on reservists to volunteer for active duty when they had gaps to fill and have only rarely resorted to involuntary call-ups in the past, most recently during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Barbero said the number of volunteers has fallen off over the past two years while demands on the marines, which with the army have carried the burden of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, have increased.
"But this is what this tool is designed to do: afford the leadership the opportunity to access their total force," he told reporters.
Analysts said the uncertainty over how long US forces will be in Iraq forced the move.
"Nobody knows when we are going to be able to start drawing down forces in Iraq," said Michael O'Hanlon. "This is not about the 'long war'. It is about Iraq."
The involuntary call-up affects people who served in the marines but left the service before fulfilling their entire contractual obligation, usually about four years.
If called up they will have to serve a year to 18 months with duty in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa.
"The message that prospective recruits are getting is that if you never volunteered to serve in the military you don't have to worry about serving. But if you did volunteer you can be called back again and again," said Loren Thompson.
"That's not the message the military should be sending if they want the all-volunteer force to be viable for the long run," said Thompson, director of the Washington-based Lexington Institute.
Lawrence Korb, who served as the Defense Department's manpower chief during the Reagan administration, said the involuntary call-ups also reflect declining public support for the war.
"The marines had prided themselves on not having to do this," he said.
"But the fact that they have to do this shows what the people are thinking about this war and what this war is doing to the force," he said.
Both the active duty army and the marines have met their recruiting and re-enlistment goals so far this year.
The army in particular, however, has had to struggle to meet its recruiting targets as the war in Iraq has dragged on.
After falling eight percent short of its recruiting goal last year, the army started taking in more candidates with lower scores on aptitude tests, and it raised the maximum age from 35 to 42.
"Thus far in the war the army appeared to be the only service with a major recruiting problem," said Thompson.
"But what this latest move by the Marine Corps means is that it, too, is beginning to run into resistance from prospective recruits in terms of signing up and serving in Iraq," he said.
The war in Iraq has taken a toll on the army's and marines' equipment as well, raising concerns in Congress about the readiness of US-based units and their ability to respond to a crisis elsewhere in the world.
"We remain capable of responding to our regional and global responsibilities," said Barbero, noting the swift response by the US Navy and marines to the crisis in Lebanon.
But an estimated 40 percent of the army's and marine corps's equipment is deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it is being used up five or more times the normal peacetime rates.
The army says it needs 17 billion dollars next year alone to replace and repair equipment -- and another 13 billion dollars a year until two or three years after hostilities have ended to keep pace with wear and tear.
The marines estimate their equipment replacement costs at 11.9 billion dollars.
A report by the Center for American Progress said Wednesday that the marines have been taking equipment from non-deployed units and from prepositioned stocks stored on ships in Europe.
"What that means is if you had to go someplace else now you might now have all the equipment that you need," said Korb, who authored the report with Thompson and Max Bergmann.
Copyright © 2006 AFP