Army leaders are considering seeking a change in Pentagon policy that would allow for longer and more frequent call-ups of some reservists to meet the demands of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Army official said yesterday.
Reservists are being used heavily to fill key military support jobs, particularly in specialty areas, but Army authorities are having increasing difficulty limiting the active-duty time of some normally part-time soldiers to a set maximum of two years, the official said. He described the National Guard's 15 main combat units as close to being "tapped out."
Sgt. Andy Vinh of Aspen Hill, Md., kisses his wife, Rose Vinh, before leaving. The Pentagon is considering altering the two-year limit on mobilizations for Army Reservists. More photos, B1.
(Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
To avoid pushing reserve forces to the breaking point, the official also said, a temporary increase of 30,000 troops in active-duty ranks that was authorized last year will probably need to be made permanent, especially if U.S. troop levels in Iraq remain high. He said significant troop levels may be required in Iraq for four or five more years.
The official declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of the troop issue and the lack of decisions. But he said that the Army probably will ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the next several months to change the policy on mobilization of reservists. "It's coming," he told a small group of Pentagon reporters. "I think we're going to have this discussion this spring."
The news comes as the Bush administration confronts rising controversy over the shape and size of the U.S. military, particularly whether the active-duty and reserve forces are robust enough to meet the many demands placed upon them. Soldiers and their families are also expressing frustration at repeat deployments to Iraq and tours of duty that have already been extended.
About 40 percent of the 150,000 troops now in Iraq have come from reserve ranks. That number will grow to 50 percent in the fresh group of forces deploying at the moment -- the third rotation of troops since the invasion in the spring of 2003. But with this rotation, the official said, the Army will have used all of the National Guard's main combat brigades.
Plans being drawn now for 2006 anticipate lowering the share of reservists to about 30 percent and relying more on active-duty soldiers. But even so, the Pentagon will continue to depend on reservists for such critical support jobs as civil affairs, engineers, medics and military police.
Under current policy, a reservist is not to serve on active duty for more than 24 months, although those months can be split among multiple deployments that occur over a period of years.
The change under consideration, the Army official said, would essentially make a reservist eligible for an unlimited number of call-ups but stipulate that no single mobilization would last more than 24 consecutive months. The official said the Army would attempt to use such expanded authority sparingly to avoid alienating soldiers.
"We are concerned about the health of this all-volunteer force," the official said.
But any extension in deployments is sure to prompt grumbling -- or worse -- in an Army Reserve community that numbers more than half a million and has begun showing signs of serious stress. Both the Guard and the Army Reserve have reported significant shortfalls in meeting recruitment targets in the past few months. And earlier this week, an internal memo from the chief of the Army Reserve surfaced warning that his forces are nearing a breaking point.
Told yesterday of the Army plan under consideration, several defense experts said longer mobilizations could further erode the ability of the reserve branches to recruit soldiers and retain the ones they have.
"The reserves are already overstretched," said retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "To change the rules will almost certainly backfire and accelerate the deterioration of the reserves."
Federal law on the mobilization of reservists already provides for call-ups of as long as 24 consecutive months. But in an effort to spare these part-time soldiers such continuous active duty, the Bush administration adopted a policy making the 24 months a cumulative maximum.
A change in this policy would require Rumsfeld's approval, the senior official said.
Concerns about the Army's ability to sustain operations, particularly in Iraq against a persistent insurgency, have fueled calls by lawmakers and defense specialists to expand active-duty ranks.
So far, Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials have resisted such appeals, questioning the long-term need and noting the considerable expense of adding troops. A permanent increase of 30,000 soldiers would cost about $3 billion a year, the Army official said.
The Army had hoped that an extensive plan announced last year to revamp its decades-old structure of corps and divisions and reshape brigades into more flexible, more uniform combat units would produce enough new efficiencies to avoid the need for a permanent increase in troops. But the senior official said it appears increasingly likely that the Army will need to keep the extra 30,000 troops, raising the total to 512,000.
"We're going to have to address whether we can get back down off the 30K," he said. "I don't think we will be able to."
He added that the issue would be a central focus of a broad review due this year of troop levels and weapons systems that the Pentagon conducts every four years. Financing a permanent increase, he said, would require an overall increase in the Army's budget to avoid deep cuts in weapons systems and other programs and ensure "the quality force that we need."