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US military's resources overstretched

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With too many allies to reassure and places to defend, the US is getting increasingly concerned over how much it can manage

As United States President Donald Trump tours Asia, three US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle groups are exercising together in the Pacific.

It is an awesome display of US military power and reach, a reminder of Washington's unparalleled ability to project global force. At the same time, however, it is also a sign of how stretched those forces have become.

Getting three carriers to the Pacific has been an intrinsic part of Washington's strategy to intimidate North Korea. But to do so required pulling forces from a host of other potential conflict areas.

The ever-increasing demand for military resources in a growing number of places is causing increased concern in the US military.

In June, a US Army War College report described the military's clout as "fraying" and bluntly concluded that the era of US global military primacy that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall was over.

US' armed forces have a variety of strategies to tackle that decline but the truth is that coming wars will look very different from the sort of deployments taken for granted in the recent past.

The change from a decade ago could scarcely be starker. In the aftermath of 9/11, US' conventional military capability was focused on a handful of locations, primarily Iraq and Afghanistan.

The resources ploughed into them were stupendous - US$5.6 trillion (S$7.6 trillion) so far, academics at Brown University estimated this month.

The researchers estimated that some 2.7 million American service personnel passed through those two countries in that time, more than half of them deploying more than once.

Officially, the hope was always that one last surge of troops would win the day and allow a larger withdrawal.

That did not happen, and US military planners now assume there will be a substantial presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other countries for years, if not decades, to come.

Since the middle of the Obama administration, the Pentagon has quietly and comprehensively changed its approach to those wars, aiming for a much more sustainable "advise and assist" model working through local forces.

Speaking last month, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, made it clear he expected such missions to grow substantially in years to come. The success of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows such tactics can work.

But there have also been substantial failures and wastage, not least in Afghanistan, where local security forces continue to struggle despite absorbing US$70 billion of US funding since 2001.

Much of the burden of US operations in the last 15 years has fallen on a handful of special operations units, whose budgets, personnel numbers and deployments have all risen dramatically. They are now dangerously overstretched.

With much of the fighting left to local forces, US casualties are lower. But as the deaths of four Green Berets in Niger last month showed, putting troops far forward with less backup means that when things go wrong, they go bad fast.

Another awkward truth: In the last year, US personnel have been more likely to die in accidents than action, the result of a series of incidents including the high-profile collisions of destroyers USS Fitzgerald and John S. McCain.

That toll suggests that even the parts of the US military not fighting wars are perhaps dangerously overstretched.

That has been particularly true in Asia, where both destroyers were based. Tensions with China and North Korea have kept those units on high alert. In Europe too, heightened tensions with Russia have resulted in a scale of US military activity unseen since the Cold War.

US troops, planes, ships and submarines are now on almost continuous exercises to reassure allies and track Russia's increasingly active forces.

The Pentagon budget - US$825 billion this fiscal year - is rising, and continues to dwarf that of any other nation.

But it is also spread much more widely. China and Russia - spending US$146 billion and US$70 billion respectively - lack US' global reach but are more aggressively focused on their own immediate neighborhoods.

Both have aggressively ploughed resources into techniques such as cyber warfare that US tacticians worry might give them the edge in any local war.

Washington's military capabilities still dwarf anyone else's, but it now faces a very real danger that its foes may be able to bleed it to death without ever confronting it in battle. - REUTERS

The writer is Reuters' global affairs columnist.

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