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Possible Iraq Deployments Would Stretch Reserve Force

Washington Post | November 5, 2006
Ann Scott Tyson

The Army's National Guard and Reserve are bracing for possible new and accelerated call-ups, spurred by high demand for U.S. troops in Iraq, that leaders caution could undermine the citizen-soldier force as it struggles to rebuild.

Two Army National Guard combat brigades with about 7,000 troops have been identified recently in classified rotational plans for possible special deployment to Iraq, according to senior Army and Pentagon officials, who asked that the specific units not be named. One brigade could be diverted to Iraq next year from another assignment, and the other could be sent there in 2008, a year ahead of schedule.

Next year, the number of Army Guard soldiers providing security in Iraq will surge to more than 6,000 in about 50 companies, compared with 20 companies two years ago, Guard officials said. "We thought we'd see a downturn in operational tempo, but that hasn't happened," said one official.

A more sweeping policy shift is under consideration that would allow the Pentagon to launch a new wave of involuntary mobilizations of the reserves, as a growing proportion of Guard and Reserve soldiers are nearing a 24-month limit on time deployed, they said. Army officials said no decision had been made on the politically sensitive topic but that serious deliberations will unfold in the coming months.

Senior Army leaders have made clear that without a bigger active-duty force, the only way they can maintain the intense pace of rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan is by relying more heavily on the reserves, which make up 52 percent of the Army's total manpower. The Army as a whole is providing the bulk of the forces in today's wars, with about 105,000 soldiers in Iraq and 16,000 in Afghanistan.

Stress on soldiers and their families is mounting as active-duty combat brigades now spend only a year to 14 months home between rotations, compared with a goal of two years -- a trend that Army leaders worry is not sustainable in the long term. Reserve and Guard units are staying home on average three years, compared with a goal of four or five, Army officials said. "It goes without question that Guard brigade combat teams are going to have to deploy again to theater in less time than the . . . model originally called for," said retired Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Koper, president of the National Guard Association.

Yet ordering more citizen-soldiers out of their communities and into war zones imposes a special burden, as reservists are older and more likely to have families and civilian jobs, and must also shoulder the task of responding to homeland disasters and other emergencies.

Army Reserve and Guard leaders say that stepped-up mobilizations -- depending on their timing and scope -- could undercut recent efforts to rebuild the forces, which have suffered a depletion of manpower and equipment and have seen their units fragmented over five years of record deployments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"What we're working out of right now is a situation where we have absolutely piecemealed our force to death," said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, chief of the 346,000-strong Army National Guard, in an interview last week. "If we continue to piecemeal these things like Swiss cheese, we will not find ourselves able to build complete forces back."

Both the Army Guard and Reserve began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their units short tens of thousands of soldiers, or about 15 to 20 percent, and lacking more than 30 percent of their necessary gear. Those shortages have deepened as people and equipment are borrowed from units staying home to fill out those about to go overseas -- a process known as "cross-leveling."

"We've got a lot of internal turmoil," said Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, head of the Army Reserve. Continued, widespread cross-leveling is "causing chaos" in his force of 190,000, he said in an interview and a speech last month. The process of breaking apart units and cobbling together forces from different states goes against the culture of the Reserve and particularly that of the Guard, which prides itself on building hometown teams that fight together.

Army Reserve and Guard leaders say another challenge that comes with more call-ups is that most reserve mobilizations last for 18 months -- six months of training and preparation, and 12 months on the battlefield. "Eighteen months away from employers and the family is really too long if you're thinking of going back and remobilizing these soldiers again," said Vaughn.

"Think about being away from your employer 18 months and the friction that causes back with the family. Do you have a job? Is your life on hold? . . . Do you not get that promotion?" he said. "It is now time that this needs to be fixed."

Strong recruiting last year by the Army Guard and Reserve has begun to rejuvenate units, but additional call-ups would still take a toll on the units' most critical personnel -- leaders and non-commissioned officers, many of whom have already served combat tours. "If there was another mobilization, leaders would have to make up their mind as to whether they will stay with the team," Vaughn said.

Heavy deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world have meanwhile cut into the available pool of Guard and Reserve manpower. About 260,000 Army Guard members and 160,000 Army Reserve personnel have been deployed under the partial mobilization declared by President Bush in September 2001, which calls up to 1 million reservists for not more than 24 consecutive months.

In practice, the Pentagon operates under a less demanding policy -- reservists' service may not exceed 24 cumulative months, instead of consecutive, and individuals may not be involuntarily deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan more than once. A change in that policy or a new presidential order could open up greater access to the reserves.

In Iraq, the Army used a major surge of reserve forces in 2004 and 2005 to provide relief for the active-duty combat brigades, to allow them to rotate home for longer periods and reorganize into more robust units. In 2005, the Army Guard and Reserve supplied 46 percent of all Army forces in Iraq, including seven National Guard combat brigades.

The Iraq war has also eaten up large quantities of the Guard's equipment. More than 64,000 pieces of equipment have been left behind in Iraq, contributing to a $24 billion equipment shortfall as Guard units have only an estimated one-third of their essential gear on hand, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Following the surge into Iraq, Guard leaders said they were told to expect that they would have a break to reorganize and rebuild. But Vaughn said the equivalent of six Guard brigades are now performing less visible security missions in Iraq as well as other missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Sinai Peninsula and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"We have folks in the military who stayed in the Guard not expecting to go back, and if they get called back that could affect our retention," said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, head of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. Lempke said serious discussions on new mobilizations would get underway this month.

"Army leaders are working extremely closely with each other to make sure the forces are able to maintain the tempo and address the needs of the different components -- active, Reserve and Guard," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

National Guard leaders are also considering proposals to increase the size of the Guard, which has seen its ranks grow by 13,000 soldiers in the past year and is expected to reach its full congressionally mandated strength of 350,000 by March.

"The Guard has to grow if the long war is to continue, because we are going to hit the wall sooner or later," Koper said.

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