By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006
The Army announced yesterday that it will cut six National Guard combat brigades -- or up to 24,000 infantry and other combat troops -- as part of an effort to ease budgetary pressures and shift manpower into homeland defense missions.
In addition to scaling back the guard's combat brigades to 28 from 34, the active-duty Army will add one fewer combat brigade than it had planned, ending up with 42 instead of 43, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey told a Pentagon news briefing yesterday.
As a result, the Army in coming years will grow to 70 instead of the anticipated 77 active-duty and National Guard combat brigades to respond to overseas and domestic contingencies, Harvey said. In 2003, the Army had 67 combat brigades, Army officials said.
"This force structure we think is appropriate to the threat," Harvey said, explaining that the change resulted from a broad review of Pentagon strategy and resources that will be made public next month with the new defense budget.
The changes suggest that budgetary pressures are exerting limits on the expensive manpower increases that the Army initiated in recent years in its struggle to meet demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also reflect recruiting difficulties, as well as a greater National Guard emphasis on homeland missions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The six National Guard combat brigades -- 3,500-to-4,000-troop infantry and armor units at the core of the Army's war-fighting force -- will be replaced by brigades made up of engineers, military police, civil affairs soldiers, and other support troops "very appropriate for homeland defense missions," Harvey said.
Still, some National Guard leaders strenuously objected to the cut in Guard combat forces, as well as an Army decision announced by Harvey yesterday to fund the National Guard at its current troop level -- 333,000 -- rather than the congressionally approved strength of 350,000.
"The adjutants general all agree that we need to be at 350,000 . . . and indications are that this year we can get there again, so in our view that has to be funded up front," said Maj. Gen. Roger P. Lempke, president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States.
Harvey said if the National Guard manages to recruit more members, the Army will fund them, but he did not indicate where the money would come from -- and Lempke and other Guard officials worry it would come from their existing budget.
Curbing the growth in Army combat brigades could give troops less time than officials had hoped between war-zone rotations, officials said.
The reduction of combat brigades "will put strain on the Guard even greater than it is today, because we will have to rotate more frequently," said retired Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Koper, president of the National Guard Association in Washington.
Harvey said the Army has not yet been able to achieve its rotational goal for active-duty brigades of spending one year in a war zone and two years at home; instead units are spending 15 to 22 months at home, he said.
On recruiting, Harvey said "the future looks promising" for meeting the enlistment target in 2006 after the Army fell short by about 7,000 soldiers last year. Yesterday, the Army said it is raising the age limit for active-duty enlistees from 35 to 40, and doubling the maximum cash enlistment bonus to $40,000 for active-duty recruits who choose a high-priority skill and will serve at least four years.