WASHINGTON – The Army’s National Guard and Reserves are bracing for possible new and accelerated call-ups – spurred by high demand for U.S. troops in Iraq – that Reserve 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 Guard 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. One Army official said no decision had been made on the politically sensitive topic, and another official said action is likely after this week’s elections.
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 spend only a year to 14 months home between rotations, compared with the goal of two years – a trend Army leaders worry is not sustainable in the long term. Reserve 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 Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper (Ret.), president of the National Guard Association.
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, must juggle civilian jobs, and also shoulder the task of responding to disasters and other homeland emergencies.
Army reserve leaders say stepped-up mobilizations – depending on their timing and scope – could undercut recent efforts to rebuild the reserve forces, which have suffered a depletion of manpower and equipment and 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,” Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, chief of the 346,000-strong Army National Guard, said in an interview this week. “If we continue to piecemeal these things like Swiss cheese we will not find ourselves able to build complete forces back,” he said.