By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 — The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans to press Congress and the public to sustain the current high levels of military spending — even after the Iraq war — arguing for money to repair and replace worn-out weapons and to restore American ground forces he described as “breakable,” though not yet broken.
The new chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, expressed deep concerns that the long counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have so consumed the military that the Army and Marine Corps may be unprepared for a high-intensity war against a major adversary.
He rejected the counsel of those who might urge immediate attacks inside Iran to destroy nuclear installations or to stop the flow of explosives that end up as powerful roadside bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan, killing American troops.
With America at war in two Muslim countries, he said, attacking a third Islamic nation in the region “has extraordinary challenges and risks associated with it.” The military option, he said, should be a last resort.
But Admiral Mullen warned any nation, including Iran, not to “mistake restraint for lack of commitment or lack of concern or lack of capability.” He described the Air Force and Navy as America’s “strategic reserve,” ready to carry out a full range of combat operations beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his first interview since becoming chairman, Admiral Mullen sat in his Pentagon office on Friday and described his three immediate priorities:
¶Develop a military strategy for the Middle East, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
¶Accelerate efforts to “reconstitute, reset, revitalize” the armed forces, which he said meant replacing combat equipment and tending to the needs of those in uniform, in particular soldiers and marines and their families.
¶Refocus the military’s attention beyond the current wars to prepare for other challenges, especially along the Pacific Rim and in Africa.
Those efforts will require a considerable commitment of money, and Pentagon officials are quietly acknowledging that Congress and the public may have little appetite after Iraq for sustaining the high levels of military spending carried out since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Admiral Mullen said that an important part of his job would be making the case for maintaining those large military budgets.
“I think as a country we’re just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world that we’re living in right now,” he said. “And I don’t do that lightly.”
“I recognize that the budget is higher now than it’s ever been,” he added, referring to the combined total of the basic annual Defense Department budget and the special supplemental budgets to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military spending is hovering around 4 percent of gross domestic product, “and I would see that in the future as an absolute floor,” Admiral Mullen said.
According to statistics supplied by the Office of Management and Budget, military spending was sustained at 5 percent or more of gross domestic product from the mid-1970s, rising above 6 percent in the final years of the cold war. In 1993, after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf war, it dropped below 4 percent, declined to 3 percent by the late 1990s, and only climbed above 4 percent again in 2003.
Weighing into a Washington debate assessing the current capability of insurgents in Iraq who align themselves with Al Qaeda, and fighters loyal to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Admiral Mullen described both organizations as severely wounded but still very lethal.
The admiral, who previously was chief of naval operations, visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately after becoming chairman three weeks ago, and said he returned pleased with progress on security.
One of the few Vietnam War veterans remaining in the most senior officer corps, Admiral Mullen expressed worries that the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan had undermined the military’s ability to fight big wars — and distracted the armed forces from preparing to face other threats.
“Because we have had such an intense focus on the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan, there is risk associated with those other parts of the world,” Admiral Mullen said.
Current combat efforts are so heavily focused on counterinsurgency missions that the Army and Marine Corps “haven’t been training in or focusing on this wider spectrum of requirements should we need to be called to do something else,” Admiral Mullen said.
“And so we’ve got to make sure that we can train to, equip to and be ready for just a broader spectrum of missions,” he added.
He pushed back against those who are calling for military action against Iran’s nuclear program, saying that diplomatic and economic pressure must take precedence.
The threat to American and allied troops from high-powered explosives from Iran, he said, should be countered by halting their flow into Iraq or Afghanistan across the borders, and with attacks on those bomb-making and bomb-planting cells inside Iraq or Afghanistan.
“That said, that doesn’t get at the source of it,” he acknowledged. Asked whether the American military should aim at sites inside Iran if intelligence indicated that such interdiction could halt the flow of those bombs, he said “the risks could be very, very high.”
“We’re in a conflict in two countries out there right now,” he added. “We have to be incredibly thoughtful about the potential of in fact getting into a conflict with a third country in that part of the world.”
After meeting with soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent weeks, Admiral Mullen said: “They’re tired. They’ve been doing unbelievably great work for our country. And we need to make sure we take care of them and their families.”
Assessing the impact of long, repeated deployments for the ground forces in Iran and Afghanistan, he said, “The ground forces are not broken, but they are breakable.”