Massing enough troops for another rotation in Iraq will be "painful" and may eventually require the Pentagon to adopt policies that would extend the two-year limit on the mobilization of reserves, a senior Army leader told Congress yesterday.
"Right now we have 650,000 soldiers on active duty executing missions worldwide, and many of them have met their 24-month cumulative time, so we'll have to address this," Gen. Richard A. Cody testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
Yesterday's testimony underscored a debate brewing in the Pentagon over how to meet the long-term demands of the war on terrorism. The Pentagon now limits reserves to a total of 24 months of active duty, but the Army is considering seeking an extension to allow for longer and more frequent deployments of reservists.
Cody said the Army has not asked for a formal change of policy but made it clear that was under consideration. "We're trying to be very careful before we make these changes" because they would have broad implications, he said after the hearing.
Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, who also testified, told reporters afterward that he believes the Army will keep the current limit. "I don't know that a formal decision has been made; I think, in fact, though, it has," he said. "It will remain cumulative."
The pressure for a broader mobilization comes as demand for troops in Iraq remains unexpectedly high.
Cody acknowledged that shortly after major combat operations in Iraq were declared over on May 1, 2003, the Pentagon projected that the number of brigades required to secure the country would fall from 16 at that time to 11 by December 2003 and four last year. There are now 20 U.S. brigades in Iraq, including an increase of about three brigades deployed only for the period surrounding the Iraqi elections held last Sunday.
The heavy use of combat brigades has severely strained Army Reserve and Guard support units, from truck drivers and quartermaster troops to military police, Cody said. "That's where the stress is," he said. About 48 percent of the Army forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn from the Guard and reserves, a figure that is expected to drop to 40 percent in the next rotation.
The demand for troops is coupled with serious recruitment and retention problems, particularly in the Army Reserve and National Guard. In the first three months of fiscal year 2005, all of the reserve components except the Marines missed their recruiting objectives, according to testimony before the committee by David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz, chief of the Army National Guard, testified that recruiting for Guard forces for the first quarter of the fiscal year was 80.5 percent of the goal, and that 56 percent of the desired number of soldiers signed up in January. "We are facing, no question, daunting challenges," he said.
To step up efforts to bring in enlistees, all the Army branches are increasing the number of recruiters, with the Army Guard sending 1,400 new recruiters into the field this month, Schultz said. The Army Reserve, which is short 7,000 officers, is expanding its recruiting force by about 80 percent, to 1,800, Helmly said.
"This will be a very challenging year for recruiting in the reserve components," Chu said. He noted, however, that some of the recruiting shortfall has been offset by higher-than-expected retention rates among those now serving. He also reported that the recruiting figures for January, while still short of the goals set by the Guard and Reserve, showed a rise over the preceding few months.
If the recruiting trends and the demand for forces persist, the Pentagon under current policies could eventually "run out" of reserve forces for war-zone rotations, a Government Accountability Office expert warned in a statement submitted for yesterday's hearing. Already, the Pentagon projects a need to keep more than 100,000 reservists continuously mobilized over the next three to five years. More than 412,000 Reserve and Guard members have been mobilized since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Under [the Pentagon's] cumulative implementation approach" of reserve call-ups, "it is possible for [the Defense Department] to run out of forces during an extended conflict, such as a long term Global War on Terrorism," said a written statement by Derek B. Stewart, director of Defense Capabilities and Management for the GAO.
In another indicator of stress on the military, the Army officers testified that equipment shortages remain severe and are in some cases worsening.
"We are equipment-challenged right now," Cody said. He said the Army had to draw down "almost all" of its pre-positioned stocks of armored vehicles and other equipment to outfit seven Army Guard brigades for deployment.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the National Guard was "woefully under-equipped before the war started, and that situation isn't getting any better. It gets a little worse every day" because much of the equipment going to Iraq is wearing out or being left in the country.