Increase May Mean Longer Army Tours

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sustaining the U.S. troop increase in Iraq beyond this summer will not be possible without keeping some Army combat brigades in the war zone for up to 16 months -- much longer than the standard year-long tour, a top U.S. general in charge of the military's rotation plans said yesterday.

Air Force Gen. Lance Smith, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, also said that if the increase of more than 28,000 combat and support troops continues until February, there is a "high probability" that some Army units would have less than a year at home between combat rotations, further compressing the limited time to train and reconnect with families.

"It will be very difficult" to sustain the increase past the summer, Smith told defense reporters. "The challenges are really in trying to allow a unit to have enough time at home to train, reset and reinvigorate themselves, and to not have to extend them too long in Iraq beyond the one year boots on the ground."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said this month that he is looking at the possibility of continuing the increase beyond the summer to reinforce early progress in Baghdad. Some U.S. commanders there say they think it will be necessary to keep troop levels elevated at least until February, while others are warning their troops to be prepared to stay in the country for up to 18 months. So far, the longest that a combat brigade has been extended in Iraq for the increase is four months, in the case of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division.

The Army and Marine Corps are stretched so thin that the only way to maintain the higher troop levels is by overlapping unit rotations. The Army has deployed 21 of its 39 available active-duty combat brigades -- meaning that virtually all its forces are either in Iraq or Afghanistan or are preparing to return there. In coming years, the Army plans to build six more active-duty brigades and also call more heavily on National Guard combat units, but those forces will not be ready for the current increase.

Smith said that if Congress passes legislation that would prevent such overlapping -- for example, by mandating a minimum "dwell" time at home for units -- it would force the military to take unacceptable risks in other areas. "It makes no sense," he said.

"Are we willing to pull our brigade out of Korea?" Smith asked. "Do we want to send reserve component forces over in ways that don't best meet their needs?" The vast majority of the Army's active-duty and reserve units in the United States are now rated not ready to deploy, Army officials say.

Instead, Smith said, the Army and Marine Corps could cope with the shortened training time because a large percentage of their forces are experienced combat veterans who can "train and bring the new guys on board." "We now have the most experienced force we've had in history," he said.

Some Army combat brigades have had to skip rotations at the Army's premier training center at Fort Irwin, Calif., to deploy ahead of schedule to Iraq. Instead, teams from Fort Irwin have trained the units at their home bases. Smith said that training at Fort Irwin, while desirable, is not essential for learning the counterinsurgency skills required for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Smith also said that because Marine combat units manage to train for deployments in seven months, Army units should be able to do the same. "If seven months [at home] is workable for the Marines, why would you say the Army has to stay for a year? . . . You can physically do it," he said.

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