WASHINGTON (CN) - Top military brass told Congress on Thursday that there is no need now to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the option should be available.
"There are finite resources, and this is a balancing act between operational requirements in the theater and across the globe," said Carter Ham, a retired four-star general and 40-year veteran who served as the commander of U.S. Africa Command.
"Balancing this with a need for war readiness, considering unforeseen contingencies ... we need a capability to meet that,” Ham added.
Testifying this morning before a House Armed Services subcommittee, Ham encouraged members of Congress to remain flexible when considering an increase of troop counts, known less colloquially as forced management levels.
Increasing boots on the ground isn't popular, Ham acknowledged, but consideration should be paid to how strained numbers can hurt morale for soldiers.
"Preservation of the volunteer force is a high priority, so that people have a quality of life where they aren't constantly being deployed," Ham said.
Roughly 5,000 American troops are stationed in Iraq, aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their battle against Islamic State militants. The plan now is to keep 8,400 soldiers in Afghanistan through 2017.
Cary Russell, director for the Government Accountability Office Military Operations and Warfighter Supporter division, echoed Ham's remarks.
In addition to the curbed soldier count, coalition members have released 57,000 munitions since 2014 and used reconnaissance systems that proved to be critical in their ability to provide "timely and accurate information, particularly in absence of a larger ground presence" in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russell said.
"But the secretary of defense stated that the intensity of the air campaign against ISIS has been depleting our GPS laser-guided munitions, and the Department of Defense has increased special operations forces to increase our reach," Russell explained.
"An increase in special ops has resulted in a high pace of deployment which can affect retention, readiness and morale," Russell added.
It is not just speculating to say that fewer troops would require the country to lean harder on special contractors for critical support.
"Contractors have played a critical role in past operations, sometimes they even exceed the number of deployed military personnel,” Russell said. “Longstanding DOD challenges overseeing contractors in those kinds of environments, even when there was a much larger robust ground force in place, is difficult.”
Ret. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik helped temper the impatience members of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee voiced in the struggle to settle on a magic number.
"The pace of what happens in the theater is faster than what happens here,” Dubik said. “That could have been fixed seven years ago, but in my experience, there's always a disconnect between the speed of decision-making and the adjustments we have to make over here.”
Dubik served as the commanding general of the Multinational Security Transition Command for Iraq and as general of the NATO Training Mission for Iraq during the surge of 2007 to 2008.
"Forced management levels are decided upon by a civil authority and there ought be a sufficient flexibility to adjust that, based on changing conditions on the ground," Ham said.
Those levels, he told the committee, do ensure that the appointment of U.S. armed forces is consistent with policy made by the commander in chief, the secretary of defense and others.
"Resource constraints are also approved by Congress, so there's an appropriate role from a purely military standpoint,” Ham said. “It's one way to manage the global force and meet the requirements that the DOD has around the globe.”
Ham also warned the subcommittee to consider the possibility of "mission creep," or the gradual uptick of expanded war operations.
"It has a tendency to constrain operations if there's unanticipated growth,” Ham said.
As the subcommittee continues to discuss strategy, Dubik offered insight from Robert Gates, former secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In an emergency or contingency situation, "we're always 100 percent wrong and 100 percent surprised," Dubik said.
And without drawing reconsiderations about force levels, "service men are in a risky situation,” he added.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.