Possible Iraq Deployments Would Stretch Reserve Force
Sunday, November 5, 2006
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.